Claire Beale On Advertising: Giffgaff can give O2 a gift of the gab

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The Independent Online

You've probably heard of user-generated advertising: cheap, nasty commercials created in dark bedrooms by consumers with nothing better to do. When normal people try to make ads, the result is almost always unremittingly awful.

But undaunted by the thought that perhaps some things are better left to the professionals, O2 is about to go one step further. Forget user-generated advertising, O2 is planning a user-generated brand, backed by user-generated marketing. It's called giffgaff and it's being described as a "people-powered" mobile network. Yes, it will plug into all the sensible, properly managed back-end business of the O2 network. But at the front end, giffgaff is the latest, and boldest, example of an advertiser embracing consumer ownership of its brand.

Giffgaff won't have expensive advertising campaigns. It won't have call centres to help customers use the giff-gaff network. It won't have armies of execs sitting in offices making all the decisions. Instead giffgaff's community of customers will help each other with any problems using the network; online tools will allow customers to ask each other for advice and to share information. The customers will advise on any business decisions the brand needs to make. They will recommend product innovations. They will create their own image for the brand using coloured pixels. And the customers will market the product to other potential customers. As far as is practically possible, it's the consumers who will manage O2's new brand.

In return, the more giffgaff's customers recommend the brand to other users, the more they create user-generated marketing, the more they engage in the community spirit of the brand, the greater the discounts they will receive on giffgaff call rates and top-ups like text messaging.

It's true that O2 has brought in the professionals to get the brand to this stage. Digital agency Albion worked on the business strategy and communication plan for the giffgaff launch, it coined the name (giffgaff means mutual giving) and worked on the design of the website: ZenithOptimedia is handling any media planning and buying and Splendid is co-ordinating the publicity. So far, so conventional. After this, though, the brand's in your hands.

More or less, anyway. Of course there's a chief executive, Mike Fairman (the giffgaff Gaffer, according to the company's chatty, uncorporate blog). If customers recommend that giffgaff starts to give all its SIM cards and services away for free I doubt Mike will nod that through. But it's a wonderfully innovative way of building a community of loyal customers in a whoring market where cost is usually more important than relationships. And, of course, the beauty of being powered by the people (rather than an army of expensive employees) is that giffgaff's low overheads mean it can afford to offer a cheaper service.

Could giffgaff herald a new decentralised approach to brand strategy and marketing? The idea that consumers now control brands is certainly fashionable – but a frightening one. These days, consumers can undermine billions of pounds and decades worth of marketing heritage with a single viral or blog about a brand. That's a troubling prospect for marketers. Ceding control of your brand to your customers is the sort of idea that advertisers talk a lot about. Very, very rarely do marketers actually step back and encourage it.

Best in Show: Dixons (M&C Saatchi)

Dixons is not a brand you'd associate with good advertising. Nor is it a brand you'd associate with a sense of fun. But it's just launched a spirited new print campaign that does wonders for its image.

The ads have been created by M&C Saatchi, and represent some of the best copywriting you'll see anywhere this year. They're joyful to read, give a clever kick to the competition on the High Street, and have managed to annoy Harrods and John Lewis. Dixons has always been easily dismissed as a grubby supplier of commoditised technology. This ad makes you think again.