Few companies share an emotional bond with their customers as Hallmark – the 100-year old, Kansas city-based, king of personal expressions – does. The company is more than just greeting cards and personal expressions, however. It’s a silent companion that is always present at times of our celebrations, laughter, tears, and sorrows. We have shared more of our lives with and through Hallmark than we can remember.
For all its pervasiveness, Hallmark operates quietly, almost as if it were shy of the spotlight. But when it comes to adopting new and emerging management thinking and practices, Hallmark is anything but shy. It can be very aggressive. Consider the case of customer communities and collaborative innovation, topics that top today’s management agendas, and which are discussed in my forthcoming book on Collaboration and Co-Creation. Not many people know that Hallmark is a pioneer in these fields. It started experimenting with customer communities in the late 1990′s, even before legendary P&G!
Hallmark’s collaborative innovation journey with its customer communities is a classic, stuff that makes for excellent B-School case studies. What is even more classical is Tom Brailsford’s association with this journey. He was there on day one, when Hallmark decided to invest in customer communities, and has been with the initiative since then, growing and evolving with it. This blog features some of Tom’s key experiences and thoughts, as he reflects on his most extraordinary and enriching association with Hallmark’s customer communities.
Tom, can you give our readers a bird’s eye view of what the customer community landscape looked like in the late ’90s/early 2000′s, when Hallmark decided to invest in proprietary customer communities?
Happy to. The Internet is everywhere today. But at that time the Internet was still relatively new, especially as a consumer phenomenon. The prevailing wisdom at that time was that you couldn’t meaningfully engage with customers and conduct activities like marketing research on the Internet, for a host of reasons. In addition, we had pretty heavy skepticism within our own organization. We were told that people wouldn’t participate. We were also told that we are an emotion-based business, and that people would find it difficult to share their emotions on the Internet. So, it was not a very encouraging vista that we were faced with. Fortunately, I had some visionary leadership to work with and the mandate to embrace and try new things. So we moved forward into the headwind, and the rest, as the cliché goes, is history!
It’s been a remarkable journey. You have been associated with the initiative for close to a decade. What are the 3-5 things that have left a lasting impression on you?
The most remarkable impression I have to say is how much people want and value having a voice within the companies they love and patronize. And this despite all the hurdles and roadblocks we put in their way like legal agreements, and giving up their intellectual property rights to us. I have been startled at how honest the people in our communities have been, holding back virtually no aspect of their lives. I have gained an abiding appreciation of the power of Trust in fostering bonds among customers, and between consumers and Hallmark. Finally, I have come to truly appreciate the value and importance of passion; passionate people working on something they believe in, which is how we survived the stresses and strains of the early times, and eventually achieved success.
Let’s look forward. Recently, Hallmark rebranded its communities. Discuss the implications of rebranding, and how you see the communities evolving over the next 3-5 years?
As you can imagine, during our decade plus experience with online customer communities, we have interacted with our customers in a variety of different ways. Today the communities are an accepted and integral part of the company’s consumer insights platform. Not surprisingly, the demand to interact with the communities has increased. The objective of rebranding is to repurpose, clarify, and communicate a different focus; one that moves away from mere validation to exploration and co-creation. We call them Circles of Conversation today, as Hallmark has new needs that involve much closer support for its innovation efforts. Consequently, we wanted to be more purposeful in our usage, and challenge the boundaries of what can be done using online communities. Our goal is to reduce open-ended, in-depth explorations and increase social media activity and engagement. We also want to provide more immersion opportunities for our senior executives and company leadership. The dedicated and proprietary customer communities will continue to provide a source of deeper understanding, but social media-based listening and engagement is going to get more interesting and important.
Share one outstanding success story – an outcome that would never have happened if the communities didn’t exist.
This is a tough one for two reasons. First, we are a private company and I am limited in what I can disclose. Second, there is seldom any one study, technique, person, or experience that can be singled out as the cause of an outstanding success. With that in mind, I would say that the biggest contribution our communities have made is change the language we use and the lenses through which we look at consumer behavior. This has led us to ask traditional questions differently, and ask a whole new set of questions. Without exaggeration, the communities have helped us understand how real people talk about the issues and jobs they are trying to accomplish and have helped us become more consumer focused. This has influenced everything from marketing to strategy. I know this isn’t as specific as you may have wanted me to get, but it is the best I can do given the limitations.
Tom, there is a lot of cynicism out there, in terms of what’s in it for the consumer? What has your experience been in this regard? Do the consumers also benefit, or is it just Hallmark?
We have asked our members over and over again, “Why are you doing this?” The answer we get repeatedly is, “It is so exciting to know that a company wants to know what we think.” Some have said, “When I walk into a Hallmark store, I feel happy, because I know that I have made a contribution; there are things in that store that I’ve had a hand in creating and bringing to life.” Aside from that, they love the “closeness” of the walled community that has a code of conduct, so they feel safe sharing. They truly do form close relationships and share a lot/everything with one another. Many lasting friendships have been formed between community members. The communities fill an important social need for the participating women, and we are grateful to provide them the opportunity. No, its not just Hallmark that benefits; the consumers benefit as well. I think that’s the main reason the initiative is still healthy and thriving, ten plus years after inception.