There really are awards for participation

The days of passive branding are over. Consumers – particularly Millennials – are proving with their dollars and their time that they want brands that actively and creatively engage them. Consumers are no longer content to be treated as passive participants in a brand’s product, but are looking to be active players. And the most successful brands are moving beyond passive sponsorships (e.g. concerts, sporting events) to directly engaging the creativity of their customers.

With the explosion of social media, companies now have entirely new avenues for creative give-and-take between consumers and their brands. Take print studio Mindzai Creative. Mindzai recently began hosting a monthly open studio event in their Atlanta location, inviting people to come together and make art. Hosting a creative community event brings Mindzai deeper into customers’ lives, making them active participants in brand creation as opposed to merely passive consumers. This type of engagement appears at all levels of brands, from small outfits like Mindzai to behemoths like Frito Lay. Lay’s annual “Do us a Flavor” contest asks customers to submit original ideas for chip flavors, letting fans vote to decide the winner. This type of brand interaction moves companies off the shelf and into consumers’ lives, building a more connected and loyal consumer base.

VSCO, the enormously popular photo-editing app and community, provides a great example of a company that goes to the extreme end of involving itself in consumers’ creative lives. The company’s success is due to a lot more than their trendy image – think free-spirited bohemian traveler living in a coastal city – or their appealing photo filters. VSCO has invested in their community, and it’s starting to pay off. The company recently raised $30 million to expand, suggesting investors are beginning to understand the value of community engagement. Besides VSCO’s online platform to share your photos with other artistically-inclined photographers (i.e. everyone with an iPhone), you can check out their tips on black and white photography, use their free photo studio in New York, and even print your beautifully-filtered images through Artifact Uprising, the nostalgia-heavy printing service the company recently acquired. In short, the company provides a whole lot more than an app. It provides a way for consumers to engage creatively with each other and with the brand, blurring the lines between consumer and participant.

So what’s a brand to do? Engage, engage, engage. Offering a place for your customers to express themselves and explore creatively elevates a brand to a platform that’s far more essential than just the product – and when you connect with customers in that way, they tend to stick around.