When it comes to game-changing ideas, is there really wisdom in crowds? Given several efforts at crowdsourcing creative content and product development in recent years, more than a few companies seem to think so. What's less clear is why some crowdsourcing efforts are wildly successful while others fall flat. Vitaminwater raised the question again this week when it released a new "flavor creator" app for Facebook, inviting users to vote for a new flavor and vitamin formula for a new product release, even offering $5,000 to the fan who creates a winning packaging design. The crowd gets a product of its own creation, and Vitaminwater gets a pre-approved-by-the-crowd product for release in March. Everybody wins, right?
Letting history be the judge, the answer is at best a "maybe." Doritos has enjoyed measurable success crowdsourcing Super Bowl ads with its "Crash the Bowl" contest, notching the No. 1 most watched Super Bowl ad on YouTube in 2006. But a nearly identical marketing initiative by Chevrolet asking users to create their own Tahoe ads online turned into a forum for the anti-SUV set to bash the product on Chevy's own Web site. More recently, advertising powerhouse Crispin, Porter + Bogusky learned the hard way that crowdsourcing can go seriously awry, drawing fire from its own creative community after issuing an open call to designers to create a logo for one of its clients, essentially soliciting free design work. So how will Vitaminwater avoid Crispin's crash and burn and turn its crowdsourcing experiment into a success?
The greatest advantage of crowdsourcing is that it costs relatively nothing. While Crispin failed to recognize that crowdsourcing from a professional group—that is, asking people to do something they do for a living for free—would be taken as an insult, it did garner hundreds of submissions for a logo design, gratis (the winning design scored $1,000, a pittance for graphic work). In that sense, Crispin succeeded, but at the expense of its reputation (and that of its client, a major faux pas in for a company hired to build up brands). Companies like Doritos or Vitaminwater, appealing to non-professionals who are nonetheless experts on the topic (ask a child why she like Doritos and you'll likely get a reasoned answer) for creative ideas holds far less potential downside as long as the anti-vitamin lobby doesn't sabotage the project.
But the real difference between Crispin's backfire and Vitaminwater's likely success is what the companies are really getting from the crowd. The biggest thing Vitaminwater has to fear from its initiative is that the crowd won't produce a winning product. When Crispin's logo experiment flopped, it flopped hard. But even if its product fails, Vitaminwater has a catalog of other popular flavors to fall back on, as well as tons of priceless, free market data gleaned from the "flavor creator" app that can be rolled into several future products (keep in mind, downloading the app gives Vitaminwater access to all sorts of data on your page). Couple that with the heightened brand visibility the app will create as its nearly 600,000 fans access the app and invite their friends to participate, and even a complete bust on the product development side becomes a coup for Vitaminwater's marketing team, as well as for its product development crew.
Call it hedging. Even had Crispin succeeded in crowdsourcing its logo design without the ensuing black eyes, thousands of man-hours of logo design were left in the rubbish bin. A complete failure for Vitaminwater's crowdsourced flavor, while a bummer, is still a huge success for the company. For Vitaminwater's flavor app, crowdsourcing isn't a win-win. It's a can't lose.