When I was visiting India recently, a rather unusual product and branding concept came to my attention. Lijjat Papad is a bread product, known to all throughout India. The fascinating thing about the product lies not in the taste of the bread but in its production and distribution.
You see, this bread is not mass-produced by a commercial bakery. It's baked by thousands of women in their own homes. During the early hours of the day, the Lijjat Papad trucks visit these countless cottage bakers to collect and deliver the popular staple to the millions of mom-and-pop stores across India.
In the context of this economic model, the term "homemade" takes on real meaning: The bread is produced by the people, for the people.
The philosophy behind Lijjat Papad is not unusual on the subcontinent. Telecommunications, cosmetics, and newspaper companies all leverage the power of the people to build their brands.
Grameen Bank in Bangladesh, for example, has become famed for its Nobel Prize-winning microfinancing and microcredit facilities for the poor, and has given birth to a range of socially enabling programs. Its Village Phone Program, started in 1997, provides an income for more than 200,000 Village Phone operators in rural areas. Mostly women, the Village Phone operators invest in a mobile phone, which they are able to rent to other villagers as required.
The unique program is administered by Grameen Telecom Corporation for the benefit of rural communities. A byproduct of this service, and of Grameen Bank's microfinancing services, is that millions of people all over Bangladesh have become ambassadors for an accidental brand—Grameen. The name is revered globally as well as locally as a leader in corporate social responsibility.
Hindustan Unilever Limited's (HUL's) initiative in rural development is known as "Shakti," which means "strength." Launched in 2001, Shakti builds on a four-decade-long commitment to integrating local business interests with national interests.
Shakti creates Shakti Entrepreneurs and aims to reach 500,000 villages, and affect the lives of 600 million people, by the 2010. It creates income-generating capabilities for underprivileged rural women by providing a sustainable micro-enterprise and improving health and hygiene awareness.
HUL offers business training to Shakti women who become direct-to-home distributors of a range of mass-market products (like coffee, laundry powder, toothpaste) in rural markets. Again, the branding benefits are enormous.
HUL is seen as a company that has created a win-win partnership for all: families depending on the organization for their livelihoods, and rural communities becoming self-sustaining through the partnership.
On the other side of the world, Natura, a Brazilian cosmetics and personal care brand, has developed a network of more than 56,000 consultants who represent the brand and spread the word about it across South America.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the brand is the fastest-growing cosmetic brand in the region and an annual turnover of $2 billion. (Click here to see my latest video from Sao Paolo and learn more about Natura.)
Each of these companies has torn down the wall between their customers and the brand. They've enabled customers to spread the word and secured hundred of thousands of brand ambassadors for next to nothing.
This is a trend that's likely to grow around the world, perhaps not in the real-life, community-based style adopted in the Indian, Bangladeshi and Brazilian examples, but perhaps in an equivalent online version.
I might be naive, but why don't corporations use their networks better? Only a handful of brands have leveraged online communities actively, as Lijjat Papad has done offline. Very few companies have systematically leveraged their consumers' increasing communications power, which is full of capacities for advocating brands.
Probably big corporations don't know where to start—or end. But the word-of-mouth network may not be as complex as you think.
During Bill Clinton's second election campaign, his team identified a trend among his potential voters. The most powerful pro-Clinton voices didn't fit the usual profile. They belonged to "soccer moms"—those who developed an invaluable network of contacts chatting to each other, and offering each other advice while waiting to collect their kids from soccer. It was the soccer moms who generated the buzz and energy that helped Bill Clinton secure a second term.
The soccer moms have taught us that the essence of a powerful targeting strategy isn't to target everyone but to find the snowball at the top of the mountain and give it a nudge. It rolls downhill, capturing attention and growing to encompass whole villages of people on its way.
I'm sure you're able to find fans, like the soccer moms, of your brand somewhere on the Internet. If they haven't already sent you emails or letters, you'll most likely find them in chat rooms. Perhaps your brand is mentioned on some of their Web sites.
Find them and categorize them according to the type of admiration they have to your brand. Are they big-time fans, or just supporters? Is your impression that they have a large group of followers, or is it that their opinions tend to spark a debate? Once you know your brand fans, develop a plan for reaching them.
LEGO established a LEGO's builder community—a group of LEGO maniacs (as they called themselves) who simply adore the brand. That community is now the key driver for LEGO's research and development activities—and a vital part of its communication strategy, helping to spread the word across the world.
Don't stop there. Find groups who aren't yet fans—people whose interests match to your brand, who, like the soccer moms, have a strong and respected voice in their communities. Then create a program around them, for them, and, in the end, by them.
That was how Natura and Lijjat Papad grew to become market leaders. And they both did so without spending millions of dollars. A highly targeted, highly relevant approach was enough to secure an invaluable group of followers which today has become the core of the brand.
As Benjamin Franklin once said, "Tell me and I'll forget. Show me and I'll remember. Involve me and I'll understand." The better you are at involving your customers in the philosophy of your brand, the better they'll understand why you're special.