Art by Adriana Campos
These days, any piece of content has the potential to spawn more content. It's like a mere push is all it takes to set off a whirlwind of creativity. Take, for instance, the case of the cockroach at the Met Gala, which demonstrates how a significant event can be upstaged by a situation that goes beyond the original script—triggering a cascade of memes, jokes and various other forms of content.
For brands, navigating this audience-driven process can be challenging. While user-generated content flows freely, brands operate within controlled and limited environments. These spaces are often carefully curated, limiting the element of spontaneity. In contrast, viral content knows no bounds or restrictions, effortlessly traversing different media, platforms and even formats.
Considering style guides, risk management and other factors, it’s understandable that spontaneity may not come naturally to certain organizations. However, actively participating in the creation process can be the differentiating factor between a successful brand and one that no one has heard about. Let’s delve into the significance of content transformation and explore what brands should take into account to be involved in the creation process.
Content iteration serves as a means of social connection.
In today’s world, people establish connections by sharing content. We exchange memes, TikToks and all kinds of posts as a way to forge bonds, whether the goal is to showcase shared interests, convey emotions without relying on words, or simply bring joy to others.
What’s particularly fascinating to me is that when audiences can’t find the content they desire, they create it themselves—often drawing inspiration from others and then customizing it to suit individual needs. And just like that, everything we share digitally fulfills our creative, expressive and communal needs. It instills a sense of belonging, whether within a large or small community.
A great illustration of this phenomenon is the case of Cheems, who gained renewed attention following the unfortunate news of his demise. The Cheems meme initially originated from a photograph shared by its owner, which was then transformed into a meme by another user, who inspired a snowball of subsequent memes. Each one of those serves as an example of how content iteration has evolved into a significant mode of social connection—and it’s only natural for brands to strive to speak this language. While some may be hesitant, fearing it may divert from their brand identity, others have effectively integrated it into their content with great success.
Nostalgia becomes an opportunity.
When discussing how the public embraces a brand, it is impossible not to mention the remarkable phenomenon surrounding the Barbie movie. Not only did Barbie achieve unprecedented success at the box office and in marketing, but it also triumphed in generating user-generated content. Platforms like TikTok witnessed the audience embracing and replicating Barbie, with both critiques and praises of the movie, as well as the birth of numerous trends. Perhaps you've come across the viral TikTok trend where boyfriends surprise their partners with a Barbie doll as a gift, inviting them to watch the movie together.
Furthermore, songs from the soundtrack also gained significant traction on the platform. One notable example is Billie Eilish’s "What Was I Made For?" Initially, the content associated with the song revolved around the movie, featuring edited scenes and memorable moments. However, over time, the song evolved into a popular choice for sisterhood topics or introspective moments that resonate with people.
Barbie, along with other phenomena, opened doors for brands to engage in meaningful conversations and create captivating content. Opportunities like this demand that brands be quick and responsive, as these conversations take place at a specific, fleeting moment in time. Nevertheless, it’s important to mention that time constraints should not hinder a brand’s strategic approach. The Barbie/Oppenheimer collaborations, for example, garnered significant attention in certain markets, but it wasn’t well received by Japanese viewers.
That said, some brands successfully found the sweet spot, seamlessly intersecting the movie and their own brand identity. For instance, the post we created with KFC Mexico garnered an impressive organic reach of 1.7 million on Facebook, marking a 14.7-fold increase compared to the brand’s average regular posts.
From guilty pleasure to content vortex.
In Mexico, the reality show La Casa de los Famosos, produced by Endemol and broadcast by Vix and Televisa-Univision, became a powerful content generator. It was virtually impossible to avoid encountering related content when browsing any social network. TikTok and Reel edits seemed never-ending, spreading like wildfire through WhatsApp groups and even sparking face-to-face conversations. The edits evolved into filters and were accompanied by songs associated with the reality show.
As mentioned above, content iteration has become an integral aspect of the daily lives of younger generations, including millennials, Gen Z and Gen Alpha—the target audience that many brands, if not the majority, aim to connect with. This presents a unique opportunity for marketers to engage with their audience by providing platforms for self-expression and creativity.
To that end, the showrunners were skillful in choosing participants who already had a significant following on social media. In other words, they seized this opportunity by capitalizing on the contestants’ popularity to generate genuine interest, much like how brands partner with influencers who resonate with their target audience. As proof of the power of these connections, the winner of the show was initially propelled to fame by her ability to forge genuine connections with her fans through authentic and spontaneous live streams.
Overall, the surge was so overwhelming that brands using both paid and earned media attempted to capitalize on the phenomenon in one way or another. The objective was to intertwine their narrative with the ongoing conversation, effectively becoming an organic extension of the show’s cultural impact. This brings us back to the central premise of this article: your brand doesn’t truly come to life until people go beyond passive engagement and adopt it as their own.
Techniques for co-creating content (and culture) with consumers.
Recognizing that people are at the heart of content production is the first step. All consumers have the potential to be content creators, and this kind of "content anarchy" is what makes it a powerful communication medium.
However, this is where many brands face challenges. They struggle to propose and embrace consumer-generated content, as they are conditioned by rigid systems of meaning, values, visual identity and more. Brands often find it difficult to adapt and yield the spotlight in a landscape of flexible and adaptable content.
There are several mindsets that brands can adopt to co-create culture with their consumers while staying true to their values. Here’s a summary of what you need to consider:
- Be a team player, not just a player. See your audience as part of your team and become a team player. Allow people to take ownership of your brand, not just during a purchase but also in the content they want to consume and replicate.
- Be ready to iterate quickly. Consistency should not hinder your brand’s adaptability. While your brand holds meaning for the audience, that meaning is not fixed. Be swift in your ability to react and be part of ongoing conversations. Avoid exhaustive approval processes and explore the option of sharing user-generated content, as there is great value in the organic way your audience already relates to your brand. (Plus, it can help reduce production costs.)
- Think less like a brand and more like a person. Embrace the concepts of buildability and personification. Understand that the content the audience creates, even without a sales call-to-action, can be equally or more powerful in building your brand, as it reinforces memory structures among the audience. Also, keep in mind that platforms like TikTok demand a higher degree of humanity. Find the sweet spot between your brand’s essence or personality and the life stage of your audience, considering their behavior, self-expression and interests. Embrace imperfections, just as people do.
It all boils down to the question: why should brands behave as something static, rigid and inert, instead of reflecting the dynamism of culture? Brands are born and evolve within culture, which is alive and constantly transforming. By adopting a more dynamic approach, brands can better connect with their audience and co-create culture together.
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