A big part of my day job is to help organizations with their brand positioning and strategy (I also write about brand strategy quite a bit over here).
So when I read the article in the New York Times this past Sunday about TEDx, the relatively new (and incredibly popular) offshoot of the legendary TED conference, I thought it might be a good opportunity to take a closer look. The issue?
Clearly TEDx has been a smart community-building strategy, but will it ultimately prove to be a smart brand strategy as well?
Let me take a few steps back. If you are not familiar with TED (seriously? have you been camping in Siberia?) you can learn more here.
The main TED conference is a place where smart people (with big $$ and a personal invite) go once a year to hear other smart people give short talks showcasing how smart they are. The rest of us poor, unconnected folks wait patiently for the nice TED people to release the TED talks one by one, teasing us like a painfully-slowly dripping faucet teases a man dying of thirst.
And that's the way it worked. Until last year when, in June, TED announced a new program called TEDx that would allow anyone to organize their own TED conference anywhere in the world.
The New York Times article tells the story of what has happened with the TEDx program in a little over a year:
...there were 278 events last year in places as near as New Jersey and Florida, and as far as Estonia and China. There was TEDxKibera, held in one of Africa’s largest shantytowns in Nairobi, Kenya. And there was TEDxNASA, which had space-themed lectures.
Already this year there have been 531 TEDx events. Another nearly 750 are to take place this year and beyond.
Wow. Now that is community-driven innovation on a grand scale. From one event per year with a small number of people attending at a very high cost to almost two TED events per day, held around the world, and almost every event is free. All that in a little over a year.
I'd call that a smashing strategic success. A soon-to-be-classic community engagement story.
But if we look at the decision to create TEDx from a traditional brand or intellectual property point of view, would it also be viewed as a good strategy?
Traditional brand strategists might question whether TED will be able to maintain control of the TED brand in the long term or if, by allowing 100s or 1000s of local organizers around the world to use the TED name, they will dilute or, even worse, lose ownership of the TED brand name.
Brand strategists love to point to examples like asprin, escalator, and zipper that were originally brand names owned by the companies that invented them (here's a really good list of genericized brand names on Wikipedia), but later lost trademark protection because of inadequate defense by the companies that owned them.
I'm no stranger to this issue, having spent ten years managing brand strategy for open source software company Red Hat.
And I'm also no classic brand strategy guy. I played a role in many decisions over the years that went counter to the traditional brand practice of tightly controlling your brand story, including providing an assist on the strategy around the Fedora brand and trademarks, the decision to license Red Hat's videos under a Creative Commons license, and the decision to do the same with content right here on opensource.com, among other things.
My view? When it comes to choosing the right brand strategy for our current 2010 world, we need to weigh two opposing forces tugging mightily at each other.
On one side, we now live in a world where openness and sharing have, in many corners, become the standard operating procedure. Because of this, some organizations are beginning to cede control of key elements of their brand to their audiences. Sometimes they do it on purpose as part of a smart community engagement strategy or experiment. Sometimes the audience simply hijacks the brand whether the organization likes it or not. The flat world of the Internet makes the latter situation more common than ever before.
On the other side, we have a legal system still heavily steeped in a long tradition of brand protectionism. The law is woefully behind when it comes to understanding the changing state of our connected world. Organizations that do not protect their brands in this legal environment may be taking great risks with some of their most valuable intellectual property.
Which brings us back to TED. So did the folks at TED make a good brand strategy decision by giving some of the TED brand ownership to their community?
I think they did.
Now granted, TED is taking a big brand risk. But brand strategy is all about taking calculated risks that may allow you to extend your brand in new and interesting ways.
I think TED did mitigate some of that risk by not allowing the community to use the main TED brand itself (which remains tightly controlled), but instead giving them their own (albeit dangerously similar) brand in TEDx.
In addition, the TEDx strategy has helped TED fix one of its main brand weaknesses—the perception that it is elitist. In one year, TED has transformed from a brand that you can "see but not touch" to a more open brand that allows anyone to participate.
It is truly amazing to see how the TED community has embraced the new approach. Just take one look at the page listing all of the upcoming TEDx events. Staggering.
The one place where I worry most for TED is in the experience of the TED brand. With 700+ events being held in one year, will everyone who runs a TEDx event do an equally good job in the caring and feeding of the brand?
My guess is, without some sort of TED or TED-community-based oversight, there will be a few bad brand experiences in that bunch. Hopefully the large quantity of good experiences will drown out the bad ones.
So to sum things up, was TEDx a brand risk in the traditional sense? Yes.
But in my view, the risk is so heavily outweighed by the community and brand-extending benefits that it was absolutely a risk worth taking.
I believe it will pay off in spades over the long term, and I predict that TED will become (if it has not already) one of the most important leadership brands of our time.
Who knows, maybe I'll submit a proposal to discuss the TEDx brand strategy at an upcoming TEDx event near me.
I shouldn't have any trouble finding one:)