Recently, I found myself using my trusty Arm & Hammer Baking Powder to brush my teeth after I had ran out of toothpaste. It tasted like the inside of my refrigerator, but it got me thinking. Was I having an unauthorized brand experience? See my last blog for more on this topic. Could there be an advantage for companies and consumers to co-create brands for products where consumers actually discover and develop multiple user experiences? As I've stated before, people have modes, they are both consumers AND advertisers. They are also "users." And as users they can choose to ignore the intended use of a product and invent their own, going "off-label". One of my favorite off-label resources is Ikeahacker. The web has enabled fast-track adoption of off-label uses posted by consumer advocates for many products, such as the Ikea table-cloth dress (pictured).
There are some barriers of course. Adweek covers these in an excellent article on off-label consumer products here, talking to the pro's and cons of off-label use. Off-label use can definitely dilute a brand's strength too. However, as a practice, companies don't "open-source brands." Open-source branding applies the same concept of open-source computing to brand development.
Linux has found a tremendous advantage in "mass collaboration" and "distributed thinking". By distributing the load of thinking and ideation, coders and programmers take systems and invent new applications which in turn spreads the adoption of the system. In marketing, the "Hello Kitty" brand is an example where people have developed many different uses for the brand by flipping its core brand equity from pop to ironic counter-pop-ness. The flip has spread Hello Kitty to every corner of the planet.
Now, Arm & Hammer may be the granddaddy of all products with off-label uses, but you don't see them going much further than classic-CPG brand extensions. Sanctioned brand extensions work sometimes (A&H toothpaste) and sometimes they don't (New Coke). That's because they generally don't anticipate unmet consumer needs. Its clever cross-promotion to have Tide powered by Dawn but its more of an adaption than an evolution.
Virgin does a good job at extending their brand--but imagine if consumers could create the next Virgin product using Virgin's platform core equities of rebelliousness, fun, daring, and innovation. In fact, distributing the thinking on the Virgin brand would fit right into their existing equities, think Seti at Home for Virgin.
Distributed co-creation of off-label uses on an open-source brand could ultimately become a kind of marketing in its own right. Advertisers are already tapping consumers to make their advertising content (UGC) and name their sub-brands. I believe UGB or "user-generated brands" can't be far behind. Another principle or directive of consumer co-creativity could be --distribute co-creation to open-source your brand. Heck, they're gonna make a dress out of your table-cloth anyway!