By Dr. David Forbes
“Power to the People” takes on a whole other meaning when applied to the Makers Movement. This diverse and growing group of smart, independent entrepreneurs is using its ideas to create innovative products with tools from 3-D printers to microcontrollers and sewing machines. Startups like Quirky and Kickstarter provide access to help turn these concepts into real-life products. Unsurprisingly, in the past few years, the Makers Movement has caught the attention of big brands trying to tap into the work and success (and maybe buy out a great idea or two). It’s a tricky business though: making sure that small can translate to large authentically—and that’s the rub.
A key to understanding the relationship between big brands and makers is knowing who the movement is comprised of. While diverse in demographics, they tend to have some qualities in common: educated, independent yet collaborative, distrustful of corporate America, tech-savvy, and natural-born tinkerers. They have a strong online and offline community fueled by the sharing, bartering economy of the Internet, along with in-person events and forums, not to mention publications, blogs, and the like.
So how can big brands leverage the Maker Movement’s inventions? Not only can these products and idea acquisitions breathe life and revenue into aging or stagnating companies, they can perk up and amplify brand perception–but again, it has to be done authentically.
A company’s brand “bookends” are everything when it comes to the buying public: the attitude, or brand personality, and amplitude, or what the company is good at doing, has to be in perfect harmony to resonate with consumers. In other words, I believe that for a Makers Movement product to be a good fit for any large company, there has to be a strong tie between what the brand promise is on both sides of this equation.
Take GE, which has a vibrant program geared at the Makers Movement. They host and fund all sorts of ideas from inventors, providing them with the tools and materials they need to launch an idea. GE, in the public’s mind, stands for innovation and that’s why this connection works. Or Levi’s, which has the word “authenticity” virtually chiseled into their brand. Thanks to a rich history infused with imagery of the gold rush and hand-sewn denim, Levi’s is primed both for the right brand attitude and amplitude to take on artisanal-crafted furniture. Stereo receivers? Not a great fit.
Then there is the irony factor for big brands and the Maker Movement: Sure, there may be an instant brand connection between the corporate monolith and the smaller maker, but what about the reality of large company mass production? Does the product then lose its integrity if it’s made on an assembly line? That’s where the delicate tightrope can get stretched between the corporate values of big brands and the custom, small-scale production ethos of the Makers Movement. On the other hand, while the Makers Movement might get backlash on perceived hypocrisy of the “corporation”, they’ll get the benefit of the marketing megaphone of a big brands—often not attainable otherwise.
I think the point of the Makers Movement is to enliven a culture of craft-making and tinkering, of creativity and community. Like most products, there will be a tipping point of success. The question is whether these entrepreneurs want the thrill of creating and continuing to produce in small batches or believe any other way is selling out.