Claire Beale on Advertising: Walkers' customers turn brand architects

The appropriately named George Crum is most often fingered as the man responsible for inventing the crisp in 1853. But it wasn't until Joe (Spud) Murphy, owner of Irish crisp company Tayto, found a way to add flavour to crisps in the 1950s that favourites such as cheese and onion, and salt and vinegar were born.

What would he have made of chilli and chocolate, fish and chips, onion bhaji, crispy duck and hoisin, cajun squirrel and builder's breakfast?

Mind you, even Walkers, the crisp firm now making these beautifully outrageous flavours, probably wouldn't have dreamt of putting their brand name to such mutants a few years back. But as any canny marketer knows, consumers rule now and it's consumers who have invented these six new crisp flavours.

Last summer, Walkers launched its Do Us A Flavour competition, challenging crisp-lovers to invent a new flavour and share in the revenues it will generate. The six shortlisted concoctions have just gone on sale and the rest of us can now vote on our favourite at the nicely designed Walkers website. The best flavour-innovator will get 1 per cent of the net revenue sales of their flavour.

The real winner, of course, will be Walkers: this is a wonderfully clever idea that has already been working hard for the brand for the past six months. And it's exactly the sort of fresh initiative that advertisers and agencies are busting for this year.

The truth is, getting one million people to engage with your brand at a level that goes much deeper than a single moment at the point of purchase creates a very different sort of customer relationship. In fact, your customers become much more than customers; they become partners. And, at a stroke, Walkers is seen as a company that respects its customers enough to cede some brand control to them, to give them a sort of co-ownership in the product.

It's a mirage, and we know it. But though Walkers isn't letting its customers run amok with its brand, it recognises that brands now have to open themselves up for the public to engage with, play with, manipulate and, crucially, have fun with.

The whole process has become democratised. Consumers are already demanding interaction with brands, and they're not waiting to be invited to participate. If they're not appropriating brands to make their own YouTube films with, they're blogging on them, or creating Facebook pages dedicated to their love of them, or criticising them before a potential web audience of millions.

Brands can ignore all of this (bad idea) or join in and encourage it (good idea). And since brands have become public property, Walkers clearly reckons on using the public as its product development team; consumer as brand architect (and therefore brand advocate).

But to really pull this off, you have to offer something the public wants to talk about. One of the brilliant things about Do Us A Flavour is the community chatter it has generated, on- and off-line, as punters wrestled with their own entry and debated the merits of others' suggestions.

What's also interesting about the campaign is the carefully orchestrated integration of the thought across its PR, on crisp packs and the web, with each element as important (and executionally more interesting) as the above-the-line advertising. So much so that it's hard to tell where the original idea actually came from.

And that's increasingly a tell-tale sign of how the best clients are managing to arrange their communications partners into tight-knit units who work seamlessly together. It's incredibly difficult to achieve but extremely potent if you can quell the usual agency egos enough to ensure that everyone is happy to share the credit for a brilliant idea.

The PR company Freud and the ad agency Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO have generously credited a "team effort". This being adland, though, the cynics are left wondering whether, perhaps, the initiative was actually conceived by Walkers itself. What a thought.

Best in show: Audi (BBH)

*Bartle Bogle Hegarty has kicked off the year with a creative vengeance. Its new work for the car-maker Audi has the default-critical creative community frothing with excitement and a fair amount of envy.

This is a fantastic commercial, lovingly crafted and already hailed (perhaps, it must be said, by pessimists) as the ad of the year. It's still January, for goodness' sake. But it's certainly a brilliant piece of work, at once wonderfully simple and extremely clever.

It starts with a box with a line drawing of a man on it. The man proceeds to shape his box into an Audi. If you work in advertising, you will wish you'd made this.

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