It's the fate of every parent to be subjected to the latest childhood craze: one generation's friendship bracelet is the next generation's loom band. But what I see now isn't just another collectable bit of coloured plastic; it's far more interesting than that. I see names like Stampylonghead, Pewdiepie, and The Diamond Minecart - and I see them on my children's screens.
These online stars, who have been catapulted to fame by sharing video clips on YouTube, might not yet have reached a level of recognition comparable to that of longstanding blockbuster franchises like Transformers and My Little Pony. But what is interesting is the mechanisms that make this kind of explosive fame possible: the extraordinarily high levels of emotional connection young consumers tend to develop with their favourite digital brands.
Videogame success story Minecraft is an exemplar case study of a new media property with a fan base so loyal, it gives a boost to anything that uses the game as a subject - including YouTube videos. At this month's Brand Licensing Europe (the biggest event for the European licensing industry) Vu Bui, COO of Mojang, the developer studio responsible for Minecraft, held a well-attended presentation, full of interesting insights, some of which probably seemed crazy to those in the audience still adhering to the traditional school of entertainment.
In summary, Mojang encourages Minecraft enthusiasts to engage with the game by allowing them to use it when creating their own content. For example, YouTube star Stampylonghead has built an impressive fan base from sharing videos of himself playing Minecraft, and Mojang does not seem to collect a penny from the revenue he generates. Surely, allowing fans to freely utilize the game's content, without having the creators ask for anything in return, can't be a viable strategy?
Actually, I would like to argue that it is. In the topsy-turvy world of digital entertainment, sharing a brand with its consumers, making fans co-creators rather than just spectators, is often a good thing. By allowing user-generated content, companies invite their audiences to fully immerse themselves in the brand, hence creating an even stronger emotional bond between fans and their favourite properties.
A similar example is that of digital pop star phenomenon Hatsune Miku, created by Japanese media company Crypton. Despite their relatively modest stand at Brand Licensing Europe, Hatsune Miku has burst onto the American entertainment scene, recently making her television debut with a celebrated performance on "Late Night with David Letterman." Nevertheless, this blue-haired girl is miles apart from ordinary pop stars - her singing voice is computer-generated and her body is a 2D image, projected onto a screen.
As with Minecraft, the Hatsune team is happy for fans to freely use the pop star's image. From fan art to YouTube clips and iTunes songs, Crypton supports the fan community rather than dictating the rules. Similar to the case of Mojang, the company has understood that the strength of its brand is dependent on protecting fans' rights to use it as they like.
At first sight, giving up control of one's brand might seem to undermine commercial common sense, but it is about recognizing that the rules of branding must change to reflect the medium. Digital properties are not like their traditional forerunners. What drives consumer engagement has changed, and in that sense, digital platforms such as YouTube are drivers of creativity: enabling users to co-create the storylines and thus make an even deeper connection with their favourite games and properties.