When beverage maker PepsiCo India Holdings Pvt. Ltd’s snack food arm Frito-Lay India invited consumers to send in ideas for a new flavour of potato chips, it didn’t expect to be flooded with 200,000 entries within a week.

Listen to brand consultant, Anand Halve, talk about crowd sourcing: how it can best be done, what its limitations are and who’s getting it right.

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The contest, advertised across television, radio, outdoor and digital media, offers Rs50 lakh and 1% of sales as the prize for the best entry. The company is now evaluating proposals to convert its nine-month flavour hunt into a reality show.

Crowd sourcing: A screen grab of ad contests that some firms have run lately. The concept is being used to tap talent and engage consumers.

“We’re excited… Not only does this help us source new flavours but also gives us a chance to reward our loyal consumers," says Ruchira Jaitly, vice-president of marketing at Frito-Lay India. “There will be some outrageous flavours out there, and then some that are interesting."

Frito-Lay’s strategy is loosely termed “crowd sourcing", in which tasks traditionally performed by an employee or a contractor are farmed out to a group (crowd) of people or a community in the form of an open call. Experts say that this phenomenon, driven by technology, is extremely appealing to consumers because it allows them two-way interaction with the brand.

The numbers may have been smaller, but Vodafone Essar Ltd was as surprised and pleased as PepsiCo to receive at least 13,000 entries in response to its call for completing the Zoozoo story. In the online contest, viewers have to watch a clip from a commercial featuring the Zoozoo characters and create their own finale for the story.

Vodafone’s objective is to popularize its new campaign. The winner’s prize is a BlackBerry Storm phone or Zoozoo merchandise.

“We launched the contest to create a buzz. So far the response has been overwhelming," says Rajiv Rao, executive creative director, South Asia, at Ogilvy and Mather, which manages the Vodafone account.

Over the last few months, a number of brands across product categories including automobiles and telecom have unveiled campaigns inviting consumers to participate in activities ranging from suggesting new flavours to creating a new television commercial and completing tag lines.

While the practice may not be new, an increasing number of brands are looking at it as a way of tapping into a wider talent pool and engaging with consumers in a way that has never been done before.

Consider Nestlé India Ltd, which invited consumers to send stories about Maggi noodles. The winners of the contest were featured on the product pack and had their brand experiences narrated through television commercials.

On Diwali, Tata Teleservices Ltd launched an online platform for brand Docomo where people could play with the elements of the logo to create an animated television commercial. The brand is currently running these ads on air, with a little credit tag to the creators, who were awarded Rs1 lakh for their effort.

The surge in such initiatives can be partly attributed to technology.

“Two years ago, the only role of digital was to amplify ATL (above the line) communication. Now it is being used to interact with consumers who want to tell their brands what they think and feel about them," says Lloyd Mathias, chief marketing officer, Tata Teleservices.

He says that some of the company’s best strategies, such as the call drop issue addressed in an early “hello hello" ad for Tata Indicom, and the more recent per-second billing strategy for Docomo, were derived from consumer inputs. “Have to admit that some of the best ideas come from consumers," he says.

Last week, as a part of their task, the participants on Bigg Boss, a popular reality show on Colors channel, were asked to come up with a television commercial for the Chevrolet Cruze car, which was displayed on the set. “We wanted a meaningful association rather than a plain vanilla association in the form of sponsorship," says Ankush Arora, vice-president, marketing, sales and after sales, General Motors India. “Of course it helped that the task required inmates to rattle off all the features of the car on prime time television."

Some critics view it as “lazy advertising" aimed at exploiting cheap if not free labour. Yet other brand consultants say it is a great way to engage with the consumers.

“It’s not the lazy way out… For the first time, we are seeing sectors such as FMCG (fast-moving consumer goods) engaging with consumers in such a way to stay relevant to changing needs," says Shripad Nadkarni, director at Marketgate Consulting, a strategic business and marketing firm.

From a layman’s perspective, it’s probably the easy way out: run a contest and sit back as thousands of Indians rack their brains to come up with a great idea for the brand in question. But firms have found that inviting consumer participation is often more stressful, costly and time consuming than just rolling up their own sleeves and doing the work.

“One would imagine that it’s cheaper, but it’s not. The research and development team thinks we’re nuts for even suggesting it… they need to turn these flavours around in very little time," says Jaitly of Frito-Lay.

Typically, it takes between three and 18 months for the brand to develop a flavour. In this case, the team will be expected to turn it around in six-eight weeks. “What we will spend on this initiative will probably be exponential (to what the company normally spends on developing, advertising and marketing a flavour on its own)," she says. Add to this the money that brands spend on media to get the word out to the consumer.

If not all such initiatives come cheap, not all user-generated content is of great value to the brands either.

“You may get involvement and engagement but there is no assurance that the person involved will buy into your product," says Anand Halve, co-founder, Chlorophyll Brand and Communications Consultancy Pvt. Ltd.

He maintains that “brainstorming in cinemascope", as was the case with brands such as Frito-Lay that invited people to send in suggestions for flavours, was more likely to yield results as it was an idea-tapping initiative rather than a branding initiative.

Citing the case of Nestlé’s noodles brand Maggi, he says that such engagement “is the most valuable as it rewards the consumer who has a strong bond with the brand".