Co-production: The future of authentic marketing

Co-production: The future of authentic marketing

By Effervescent


Eloïse Malone and Rich Halliday from Effervescent discuss how co-production can be used to communicate more effectively with your audiences and to have a positive impact on society.

What is co-production?

Co-production is the participatory process by which a group of people work collaboratively to design services, products, user experiences or communications. It’s currently most prevalently used in the social care, health, and academic research sectors, but is becoming increasingly important for non-profit and commercial organisations.

Co-production can be used with people of all ages; at Effervescent we specialise in collaborating with children and young people aged 7-25.

How we approach co-production at Effervescent

We start by convening a group of children and young people who have shared lived experience. Carefully, gradually, kindly, we help the group to explore their shared experience through a range of creative exercises. We sing, we play, we make things… all underpinned by our training, by our experience and by a range of recognised professional practice frameworks including humanist education, social pedagogy, person-centred counselling and trauma-informed practice.

Over two weeks the exercises produce a huge and varied body of artistic / creative outputs; somewhere within that content lies the collective insight of the group. The exercises enable the children and young people to uncover their collective insight without having to overtly talk about their personal experiences.

We then help the group to develop a powerful creative idea using their insights, and we call on our network of creative experts to build a campaign that helps the group share their idea with the world.

Three reasons co-production is now more powerful than ever

1. Genuine, deep insight

In marketing – for both commercial businesses and non-profit organisations – genuine, deep audience insight is gold dust. In the UK alone the market research industry is thought to be worth c. £4 billion.

But traditional research techniques such as focus groups only test creative ideas that have already been generated, with all the ensuing diversions and complexities created by asking people their opinion.

Creative co-production done well moves beyond such flawed techniques. Based on shared trust and grounded in the authentic experiences of the group, it creates a rich shared space to find out what wasn’t known before; a space where original ideas thrive.

2. Authenticity

Co-production provides authenticity at a time when marketing organisations are striving to be authentic. In December 2018 trust in advertising hit a record low, so it’s no surprise that both businesses and charities are desperate to be perceived as authentic and trustworthy.

3. Creativity

As long ago as the 1950s, advertising guru Bill Bernbach said “It may well be that creativity is the last unfair advantage we’re legally allowed to take over our competitors.” As marketing has become ever more complex, so creativity has become ever more important. Truly great creative ideas can cut through the barrage of advertising we’re faced with every day, they can elevate brands above the competition… they can be the difference between success and failure.

Of course, you don’t need co-production to find great creative ideas. But to find great creative ideas that are based on authentic lived experience… that’s when you need co-production.

Who can use co-production?

For non-profit organisations the benefits of co-production are clear. These are organisations that often exist to serve marginalised or disadvantaged groups and to give them a voice in society, which is precisely what co-production does.

In particular co-production is particularly helpful for raising awareness of an issue, for both charities and public sector organisations. It allows marketing clients to focus on gathering deep, emotive insight about the issue itself – leading to powerful creative ideas – rather than trying to build campaigns around marginal insight into the target audience, which in truth is secondary when you’re communicating about an issue (rather than a product) and often leads to weak creative ideas.

For example, if a charity wants to raise awareness of a disease and raise funds for medical research into that disease, they’re unlikely to learn anything particularly insightful about the disease that could lead to an emotive creative idea by speaking to potential donors. But if they collaborate with a group of people who all have experience of the disease to uncover their rich, collective insight and develop a creative idea using that insight, they’ll end up with something authentic and hugely potent.

Increasingly, businesses are also considering co-production as a way of ‘giving back’ to society as well as gaining a competitive edge. For ethical businesses that genuinely want to have a positive impact on the wellbeing of children and young people for example, collaborating with children and young people themselves has great potential for the brand.

Co-production for non-profits

An authentic story told creatively has always been the holy grail for marketeers and fundraisers at charities trying to retain existing supporters and attract new ones. Now more than ever, anyone working in communications for a charity is searching for a competitive edge.

Sad to say, the non-profit sector is in turmoil. Changing audience demographics, increased competition and declining trust have created conditions that make it hard for charities of all sizes to survive, let alone grow. Add to this, years of reductive marketing / fundraising practises designed for an audience – the civics – that is shrinking very quickly, and the task at hand for charities is clearly a daunting one. Arguably, it’s even harder for children’s charities.

Charity advertising involving children occupies a unique territory with a deep and far-reaching set of ethical challenges in terms of research, strategy development, creative production, storytelling, and impact on audiences. Sometimes it’s hard to cut through to audiences to show how important a charity’s work is, without objectifying children and young people and making them more vulnerable. Sometimes it’s hard to communicate the reality of life for some children in the UK and overseas, and the lifeline offered by charities, without creating something that’s too difficult to watch or strips children of their dignity.

Increasingly, charities are valuing children’s voice and influence in designing and refining their services. But the majority of the time, communications campaigns aimed at children are created by adults. And because adults lack the deep level of empathetic insight that children have into the issues that affect them, these campaigns are far less engaging than they could be. How much more powerful can communications aimed at children and young people be if children and young people play a meaningful and authentic role in designing them too?

Without opportunities to work directly with a charity’s beneficiaries, it’s very difficult for creative agencies to develop ideas and communications that present vulnerable children with dignity and do justice to their story. Because Co-production between children’s charities, creative agencies and children who benefit from the charities’ services “rests on equal and reciprocal relationships between professionals [and children] using services.” (Slay, J. and Stephens, L., 2010. Public Services Inside Out. [online] New Economics Foundation) it has the potential to be the most ethical way of generating advertising strategies and creative ideas. It has the potential to provide charities that are searching or a new model of communication, with exactly that.

Creative co-production techniques unearth truths not available to agencies through young people’s case studies as mediated through youth workers who are unlikely to have expertise in creative practice or strategic advertising development. It gives children, who have previously been silenced by structural inequality and trauma, a voice and agency:

“We got to tell our stories.  This project has really developed my confidence – when we started doing this campaign, I knew I was different, but now I can genuinely accept it.  I have realised through this process that I am lovable and wonderful, after all, and that has helped me to find deeper and better friendships at school. I now have some great friendships with people.” – Taylor, 13.

Lonely Not Alone by EffervescentCo-op Foundation and DDCMS 2019.

Co-producing advertising insight and creative ideas can create a positive impact for children and young people, giving them a voice, meaningful learning experiences, and a platform to say what they need to say by generating beautiful, authentic ideas and creative campaigns.

Co-production for businesses and brands

Unlike non-profit organisations, very few businesses were created with a vision or a brand purpose beyond commercial success. Of course, there are exceptions to the rule. But over recent years the private sector has come to realise that a purpose beyond profit can elevate their brand above the functional.

In 2014 Simon Sinek argued that the most successful brands with reliable longevity are those who have a powerful purpose; a core ‘why’ which provides a unifying purpose and authenticity that consumers (literally) buy into. And The Team’s brand purpose provocation articulates the strength of brand value derived from a clearly expressed positive purpose, referencing the UN Sustainability Goals.

But what constitutes genuine ‘purpose’ for brands is a contentious topic; some of the more bogus purposes developed by brands who have decided that they really should have one verge on the ridiculous. (skip to 12:20ish)

Bogus brand purpose leads to bogus brand marketing, and there is significant risk in developing campaigns which are not grounded in authentic insight and which appropriate other people’s stories. The Pepsi-Jenner story of 2017 is a brilliant example.

So how should brands approach this?

“Talking about the good you do as a company isn’t going to move the needle; actually doing the good is what matters. Instead of playing the hero, companies should champion the people that benefit from their enterprise. Instead of lauding their CSR accomplishments or donations, companies should instead find ways of empowering and enabling their customers, consumers and audiences to enact change themselves.”

Max Lenderman, Ad Week 2019.

Co-production presents itself as an ideal ethical approach to advertising creation. As a social enterprise that specialises in working with children and young people, we can see so much opportunity for businesses that want to engage this audience in particular.

Young people are a hugely important audience for a lot of businesses today. As consumers they will have a different set of needs to those who have gone before them, and brands will need to adapt. Gen Z will have incredibly high expectations; brands will need to be ethical-by-default and absolutely authentic.

At the same time there is a shift towards socially-minded business and it is gaining momentum. There are now over 3,000 Certified B Corps and growing across 150 industries and 64 countries. As the commercial sector becomes more socially-driven, businesses will look for ways to work with children and young people for social good.

The businesses that will be the most successful engaging children and young people will be those that build co-production into their strategy.

As Max Lenderman (Adweek Academic Council) eloquently points out, if advertising production for brands “is itself conscious, purposeful, serving, meaningful and self-aware, then we could embark on a movement that will change the course of humanity.”


Is co-production right for my organisation?

If you’re a non-profit organisation interested in involving your beneficiaries more deeply in the way that you communicate, then co-production is something that you should investigate. If you’re an ethical business looking for deeper and more meaningful insight to drive your marketing, then co-production may well be right for you too.

Effervescent is the social enterprise that collaborates with children and young people to co-produce beautiful, truthful creative campaigns for ethical organisations. 

Eloïse Malone is Founder and Chief Executive, you can reach her on 07763 673 530.

Rich Halliday is Director of Marketing, you can reach him on 07748 324 884.

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Resource type: Articles | Published: 2022