Co-creation, and the birth of the ‘prosumer’ which describes any form of interaction between a consumer and a company, or a consumer and a consumer resulting in the production of something of value, falls into three areas: product, service and experience. In an age where the ever-evolving advancements in digital media allow relationships between consumers and brands to be more intertwined through direct access and ease of communication, consumers can now find themselves in positions of more power than producers. Co-creation is a brand management theory that looks at the linear exchange, in a private sector marketplace between, producer and consumer. However, in the charity sector there are three entities at work: the stakeholders/employees/volunteers, the charity itself, and the beneficiaries. To that end, Arvidsson, Prahalad and Ramaswamy’s theory of co-creation needs to be adapted so that the role of the ‘consumer’ is fulfilled either the stakeholders/employees/volunteers, or the beneficiaries, being involved in forms of exchange with the charity. With this clarity of what is inferred by the role of the consumer, the theory of co-creation is of significance within the charity sector as a means of generating awareness and resources.
Social media platforms, and other participatory media, are being used as a means for brands and consumers to interact and co-create. Greenpeace’s ‘Green my Apple’ campaign, which ran in 2006, aimed at making Apple readdress how they can reduce electronic waste. Greenpeace provided Apple fans with a website where they could co-create the campaign; allowing them to email Apple leader Steve Jobs to highlight the importance of this issue, encouraging them to write blogs and create posters, videos and t-shirts etc. All of this activity was shared via social media. As a result of the profile the campaign achieved Apple realigned their policies and committed to making the organisation greener by 2008. The use of co-creation resulted in producing a feeling of empowerment within the consumers involved, having been instrumental in creating positive change which they consumed. Through the use of social media they also created a social surplus by mobilising their peers to get involved, which was of value to the charity. What we see here is that co-creation has allowed a charity to maximise their effectiveness and increase their resources, and what results is an enhanced ability to have an impact in shaping a better society, regardless of the size of the organisation. Additionally, when they next buy an Apple product they will also be consuming a more ethical product that they helped bring to market. The Orchid charity t-shirt competition where, in partnership with London College of Fashion, Raging Bull and House of Fraser, students were briefed to design an iconic t-shirt to raise awareness of testicular cancer, with the winning design being retailed online and in House of Fraser, also shows the value that can be added by co-creation. Charity shops are another example; the volunteers working in Oxfam are acting as prosumers because, in running the shop, the volunteer is giving their time for free to a charity, and therefore the charity is gaining a resource. In return the volunteer is producing, and then consuming, a feeling of contributing to the good of society: a sense of altruism.
Within the charity sector co-creation can also be observed in the form of celebrity endorsements and commercial partnerships. What we see in these instances is charities coupling up with commercial enterprises, or celebrity brands, and together creating a hybrid identity or campaign, which, when entered into a dialogue with consumers, can create something of value for both parties. Utilising the social and cultural value of celebrity, charities are able to increase the volume of a campaign’s voice at an international level. Due to the cultural value that celebrities play in the lives of the public, their campaigning can facilitate a unique bond between charities and the public principally because they are trusted. Celebrities have been successful in fulfilling a co-creation role by using their status to produce valuable resources for a charity; such as raising awareness of campaigns that they front to otherwise unreachable audiences, or actively participating in the campaigns themselves through patronage and publicised visits to areas of need. They are creating a social and cultural surplus, which can be used by the charity. The difference that George Clooney has made to in Darfur, as part of the Not On Our Watch charity, is a good example of this. Because of the influence Clooney has through his fame, his campaigning has raised awareness of human rights abuses that are occurring in this region. He uses his standing, in collaboration with the charity’s voice, to co-create visibility for the campaign. This resulted in changes to the legal procedures in Darfur facilitating easier conflict resolution.
With commercial partnerships we also see the benefits of co-creation where commercial and charity organisations align their values and enter into a unified dialogue with consumers. They are empowering the consumer to produce a feeling of altruism through an everyday purchase, which they may well have made anyway. These partnerships can take the form of cause-related marketing, corporate-social responsibility, logo licensing and sponsorship. All provide charities with valuable financial injections that they need to keep running, and raise the organisation’s profile by exposure to the partner company’s audience. So, while the charities experience increased exposure by making the consumers think about their social responsibility, the private organisation is also able to communicate to their consumers that they care about these causes, adding to their level of trust with the customer. Therefore both organisations are facilitating an interaction with consumers resulting in the production of something of value, which they then both consume.
Despite benefits to these partnerships, they aren’t always seen by the public and other interested parties as mutually beneficial. Risks can be envisaged in scenarios where these partner brands (a celebrity or private organisation) publicly display behaviour that casts the charity in a bad light, or when a celebrity/company without the necessary levels of public trust associates with a charity without its approval. At the start of 2011 much criticism fell at the door of Bing Lee who, in the wake of the flooding in Queensland, launched a Facebook and Twitter campaign stating that for every new ‘follower’ or ‘like’ they got, they would donate $1 to the Queensland Flood Appeal. Bing Lee received enormous criticism for this and was accused of exploiting the disaster to boost their online audience. As a result the charitable initiative was inextricably linked in the mind of any potential donors or volunteers, to this scandal. With no legal framework for these relationships to comply with, there is the potential for the private company to exploit the charity. In the area where a charity licenses out its brand for use on Christmas cards for example, according to the Charity Advisory Committee (2012) as little as 2-3% of the cost of a card will actually be received by the charity. This isn’t just exploiting the charity; it is also exploiting the consumers, who believed that their contribution is actively contributing to the cause in a significant way. So the private company is actually turning the social surplus created by consumers into significant financial value, with little benefit to the charity.
Large corporations, who are under the most political pressure to accept the growing social responsibility are frustrated by the governmental movement towards strategic philanthropy, and as a result they view the financial contributions they make more as a form of business transaction than an act of altruism (Drucker, 1989; King, 2008). These relationships therefore can be detrimental to a charity’s brand image as consumers voice concerns about the ethical issues arising from these partnerships. A high degree of scepticism has developed about the private company’s involvement in these ventures and that their motivations are driven by profit, not philanthropy. As such, the duty is to their shareholders rather than the greater good of society. This means that a charity needs to manage its brand identity effectively in order to make sure the relationship is seen in a positive light, and be selective over its associations. Not all charities will want to align their values with those of Tesco, for example. In being selective, a charity will avoid having to compromise its values, and avoids the possibility that its values are misinterpreted or unfairly exploited.
Similar criticism has been voiced in relation to charity associations with celebrity as well. Celebrity endorsements, which as discussed above have their advantages for charities as they can utilise the social and cultural surplus that they can create, also pose risks to the integrity of a charity’s brand. While trustees are often very keen on celebrity endorsements for the profile they can create, the important fact that the wider behaviour of these individuals cannot be controlled is overlooked. There is always the potential for a celebrity endorser to do or say something in their private lives that is misaligned with the charity’s brand. It is also important that a charity fully assesses the motivations of any commercial partnerships before entering into them, so they can minimise the risk of their values being exploited in order to help rebuild the partners’ brand in light of a scandal. The Guardian reported in October (2012) that the BBC are seeking to create links with National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) and the National Association of People Abused in Childhood (NAPAC) after the allegations of abuse centred around Jimmy Savile. Given the weight of negative publicity against the BBC, t these charities face a difficult decision – should they run the risk of severely damaging their reputation? They could potentially lose funding should the public perceive this partnership to be motivated solely for economic gain, or merely a damage limitation exercise to repair the BBC’s tarnished image.
It is clear that the use of brand strategies can be advantageous for charities in the attainment of resources, which undoubtedly leads to benefits for society. However, it cannot be ignored that in utilising certain brand strategies to manage their brand and gain resources, accusations of commercialisation can be levelled the sector. Charities are probably more obsessed with finance than private organisations, due to the unpredictable nature in their supply of it. It is also posited that these strategies lead to a deviation away from a charity brands intrinsic values.