When Your Fans Hack Your Brand, Praise Them

When fans pay creative homage to a company, they’re offering the gift of free publicity—and they should be celebrated for it, not punished, argues Behance’s William Allen.

It’s a marketer’s worst nightmare. You search Twitter: nothing. Google News: nothing. Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr, even Medium: nothing. If people aren’t talking about your brand, you aren’t doing your job. It’s possible that you can do everything right and still get lackluster results. How? By sending your fans take-down notices for violating copyrights.

Stealing is wrong. But what about remixing a brand’s intellectual property for noncommercial use? My favorite version of "Call Me Maybe" is a cover (performed by Cookie Monster, no less); remixes are what propelled this song to ubiquity. Wise companies know that such homages are the world’s most (cost) effective advertising. And the wise will be rewarded with higher sales, greater mindshare, and a deeper affinity from their fans. I call that winning.

Here is a scenario we see a lot at Behance: A student has such a passion for a particular company that they want to pay their respects to the best of their ability. So they create an ad or new design—for free—that riffs off the brand’s recognizable assets. Their creation is their homage, done for passion and not commercial gain. They ask for nothing in return.

That is what we call a gift—a gift that celebrates your brand and was specifically designed to encourage others to join in that celebration. The wise appreciate these gifts, encourage them, retweet them. But there are companies so myopic, who have such a poor understanding of people and business, that they send these same students a legal notice demanding that they take down their work. A friend was throwing a party on your behalf, with the sole purpose of celebrating how great you are, and you called the cops on them.

When you hear great marketers talk about the need to engage your community, this is not what they mean. What’s more, some brands are taking legal action against the very creatives who they hired to do their work. No creative should pre-empt a campaign by posting work before it is ready; trade secrets should of course be protected. But a company should celebrate the creatives it hires, giving them proper attribution for being the art director or photo retoucher or designer on their campaign. Disney and Paramount show credits at the end of every movie they own, demonstrating that just because you own the IP doesn’t mean you can’t nod in the direction of those who made it for you.

Rest assured, the reasons for giving credit to creatives is not altruism alone. My friends in agencies of all sizes acknowledge a simple truth: There are brands they love to work for, and there are brands they work for to pay the bills. For the former—no surprise—they consistently produce better creative. Not because the brand itself is necessarily more interesting but because the brand respects them and their process. Would you like better, more effective advertising and design? Give credit where it is due.

Marketers, brand managers, and most of all, legal departments, listen up: Here are the four simple truths we must collectively acknowledge:

  1. A creative tribute done out of passion, not the pursuit of profit, is a gift to you. Treat it as such.
  2. A single letter from your legal department will undo years of brand building and careful marketing.
  3. The creative community has a right to proper attribution of the work they have done. Simply allowing them to post their completed work on their portfolio endears them to you (as a customer, as a fan, as a practitioner) and establishes you as a brand that cares about creativity. You will get better work as a result, I promise.
  4. You do not control your brand but are rather a steward of it. Lead us, and we will follow. Command us, and we will resist.

And your reward for incorporating these truths into your company? Search Twitter, Google News, Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr, even Medium, and celebrate the stream you see.

[Image: Duct Tape via Shutterstock]

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  • John Zarlino

    William - Who would be the best person on your team to offer consideration? John

  • Jon Spectacle

    Perhaps we should just call it "art" instead of conceptual inklings. Short of defacing public property "art" tends to never really see the issue of legality from these legal reprimands. But I'm kidding really, and I think you've raised a really good point about how there is such offense to such work being publicized for the general public.

    I remember last year or was a it a few months ago (the internet is too fast these days), there was a conceptual campaign for a museum posted by someone on Behance and it was so widely successful across the design community it started gaining traction and people believed it was real. I also heard that because of that reason, said museum sent a ceasing letter requesting that it be removed! Heck, up until that point I had no idea that museum existed, so what's the issue? Perhaps it's more about how under these circumstances David kicks Goliath in the tush, and as a result Goliath feels like taking a cheap shot at you from behind to feel the power again. Meh, I don't know, but projects and passion such as these should be celebrated, especially since the intentions were positive to begin with. 

  • Guest

    Hi Jason,

    Thanks for the comment. William Allen from Behance here. I have lots of examples. There is the well-known restaurant chain that sent DMCA takedown requests to the Behance members who posted the completed, public ad campaign they worked on. The international car company that targeted students who created new advertising for a school project. Or the national non-profit who sent such a notice to someone who tweaked their logo to help bring one of their core values into their brand identity. 

    In an effort to bring more transparency to this entire area, we will be publishing the DMCA requests we receive moving forward. This way, you and the rest of the community can judge for yourself whether these brands are justified in sending such notices.  

  • Kunvay

    We couldn't agree more. Creativity should be celebrated rather than policed in situations like you describe above where the client has only to gain from the efforts of its fans. Brands should exercise discretion both with regards to when and in what circumstances they police. Worse than being loved, is not being loved at all.  Brands have to be smart, and let their fans love them.