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On 2 January 2007, something unusual happened in the small German city of Braunschweig. Nine hundred and thirty-one of its 245,500 inhabitants arranged a raid on the local McDonald’s restaurant. It wasn’t the type of raid that ends in violence. It was the type of raid known as a flashmob. Coordinated via cellphone, the flashmob is a gathering of people who come together with one purpose. In this case, it was to storm a McDonald’s and order some 2,211 burgers all at once…and to go!

Expertspeak: Lindstrom says companies clever enough to see the writing on the wall have the best chance of beating the trend.

Naturally, the incident made headlines in the local press. And, perhaps, news of this event may not have gone any further. Enter YouTube.com.

A young guy, nicknamed Churchill225, was the first to capture the flashmob raid on video and upload it to the file sharing site. Soon people in hundreds of thousands began downloading the video, and along with viewing and downloading went the sharing of rumours about making another surprise mass visit to another McDonald’s. As I write, 10 more McDonald’s restaurants in Germany are on the “hot list" of targets. The phenomenon has become a game between McDonald’s and its customers. It’s a game because both sides love the sport. Never before has McDonald’s secured this much positive attention in the press — from its fans. And never before have sales skyrocketed like this. And guess what: McDonald’s haven’t had to do a thing.

Welcome to the brave new world of marketing — marketing that’s run by the consumer, not by the companies that own the brands. In effect, brand ownership has shifted to what I call the MSP generation, the Me Selling Proposition generation, a term I coined in my last book BRAND sense. Companies no longer own their brands. They still think they do, so let’s not tell them.

In a heartbeat, a single consumer can knock down a brand, a fact proven in cases such as that of Jonah Peretti who took NikeiD, Nike’s customization service, by surprise by ordering a pair of shoes personalized with the word “sweatshop". Nike declined to produce the order and the legal team at Nike started a headline-grabbing campaign, which quickly spread across the world.

Then there was the Australian Qantas passenger, Allen Jasson, who caused a million-dollar PR disaster for the “Flying Kangaroo" when the airline’s representatives refused Jasson permission to board his flight unless he removed the anti-George Bush T-shirt he was wearing.

There’s certainly a fine balance in striking the right policy chords for brand builders. The reality is that this is just the beginning. Companies clever enough to see the writing on the wall have the best chance of beating the trend at their own game. So, what can you do to play successfully? Here are a couple of pieces of advice:

1. Give the consumer the power to play with your brand. You might discover your logo used in unusual ways, or see your brand appear in unusual contexts. You might even discover a couple of unfavourable words being associated with your brand. But, if you’re ready to play the game with the consumer, chances are they’ll admire you for it. The duel might indeed start provoking your next brand wave of attention, one run by the consumer rather than you.

2. Monitor your brand, not through press clippings, but online, in chat rooms, on YouTube, MySpace…you name it. Be alert to emerging trends that might be, or are being, linked with your brand name. If you detect an interesting trend, let everyone in your company in on it.

Consider how to push it to your brand’s advantage by supporting the community in making it all happen. Don’t make it mainstream. Adopt a laissez-faire approach — it’s up to the consumer to spread the word, and up to you to encourage them.

3. If the consumer-driven event seems to be a success, take it one step further. Set the next challenge. Don’t portray your brand as a saintly, untarnished entity — who’d believe that? But, develop an idea that makes your brand fun by returning the consumers’ challenge and, without manipulating their message, demonstrate that you listen and care for them.

Let’s be frank — it’s not easy. But you’d better push the envelope if you’re going to negotiate Brand Building 2.0.

The writer is a global marketing expert, author of BRAND sense and BRAND child, and he can be read on MartinLindstrom.com

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