Last week, for example, Reckitt Benckiser announced a competition for members of the public to create a product as part of a global campaign to drive brand awareness. Entrants must devise an item for purchasers to use at a music festival. They will have to pitch their ideas to the company via video presentations uploaded to a dedicated competition microsite.
Skincare brand Simple, meanwhile, is assembling a panel of teenage consumers to help formulate, design and promote its first junior range, due to launch in June next year; footwear brand Hush Puppies is running a nationwide competition for over-16s to design a shoe that will be sold exclusively through retailer Schuh; and Walkers' 'Do us a flavour' campaign, which ended last month, attracted significant public participation.
It is easy to dismiss these initiatives as little more than headline-grabbing stunts that are cheaper than running traditional marketing campaigns, but Reckitt Benckiser claims it has always worked with its consumers to create products and that its latest initiative is about gaining awareness in a fun way, rather than simply for PR purposes.
'A PR stunt implies the project is trivial when it's not,' argues Andraea Dawson-Shepherd, the company's head of corporate brand marketing. 'We are not doing it to generate innovation, either.' She adds that the contest has been designed to help create a 'third dimension' to the company, and forms part of a bigger campaign.
Simple, the skincare brand, also claims its initiative is more than a publicity stunt. Instead, it is being used as a means of driving long-term commitment to the brand.
'We have never had a lack of ideas in a product development department, but we also accept we're not teenagers,' says Alex Pike, marketing director at Simple. She adds that the junior advisors' most important role is to become ambassadors that can communicate the brand message to their contemporaries.
'If we lock consumers into the brand as teenagers, we can encourage them to stay with it as they grow older,' Pike argues. 'It is vital for us to get off on the right foot with the teen market by making them feel like they are part of the brand.'
George Riddiford, a partner at branding agency BrandMe, believes this trend is understandable as brands try to get closer to their consumers. 'This type of activity is like creating a members' club for the brand,' he says. 'Think of Tesco Clubcard; this is a notch on from that.'
Mike Curtis, chief executive at Start Creative, agrees. 'Getting consumers involved in product design is an increasing trend as push-advertising is less effective. It provides longer-term and broader engagement,' he adds.
However getting consumers involved in the creation of brands is not without its risks - not least because, in reality, the customer is sometimes far from right. 'You have to keep control of the NPD process, otherwise you end up with products you can't sell,' says Riddiford. Or, as Victoria Franks, UK marketing manager for Kao Brands, who is responsible for brands including John Frieda, Jergens and Biore, puts it: 'As marketers it is our job to interpret what consumers really want versus what they say they want.'
In commercial reality, companies cannot continually respond to customer demands and, as Franks points out, consumers do not always want what they have asked for.
However, if a big manufacturer can create the illusion of bringing a product to market that is jointly owned by both customer and brand, it certainly stands a chance of closing the communication gap between company and consumers.