Understanding Brand Crackers and Hackers

Kevin Mitnick wasn’t a hacker.

Mitnick was convicted of illegally accessing computer networks and stealing intellectual property in the late ’90s. He was sent to prison for five years, including eight months in solitary confinement. After his release, a condition of his probation barred him using any communications technology, other than a landline. He was essentially the computer world’s Hannibal Lecter.

But he wasn’t a hacker.

Rather, Mitnick was a cracker. To many, that’s an important distinction. Mitnick, and the legions who follow him, use their knowledge of computers and networks to break into things. They unlock networks and software. They crack things so valuable innards can flow out to the world, unhindered.

Ethan Garner, however, he’s a hacker. Garner’s the mind behind CraigStatsSF, a site that blends housing listings from craigslist with Google Maps. The result is a heat map of rents in my lovely city, showing very clearly that housing prices in North Beach are white hot.

Garner didn’t break into anything to make his site work. In fact, Google and craigslist make their information and functionality available for free through RSS and API (define). Garner created something brand-new from what’s available to him.

This, of course, is old news to those in the computer industry. But marketing departments haven’t quite keyed into it yet.

Who’s Hacking Your Brand?

Consider the latest Harry Potter book, which came out in late July. The book’s contents appeared in our world two separate ways. The big release was from the publisher, who allowed booksellers to put the massive tome on the shelf at 12:01 a.m., Saturday, July 21.

However, the book’s content had already been leaked a few days earlier on the Internet. A dedicated group of people got their hands on the book early. One of them took a digital photo of every single page, created a great big file, and posted it online. Another group used Photoshop to clean up the pages. Yet another translated the book into German. Another ported the document to various formats so it could be read on a host of devices.

The crowd worked together and got the information out into the world. While they probably didn’t diminish sales, they certainly didn’t help. They were crackers, not hackers. They saw the locked-down, publisher-controlled release of the latest Harry Potter book as a challenge, and they rose to it.

Crackers have business people, especially media business people, freaking out. Crackers send a very clear message: nothing is safe or sacred. It only takes one crack for the whole dam to explode, and cracking’s velocity will always beat security’s agility.

What you do about this challenge is a big question, and I don’t have a clear answer. Keep in mind, just like in the computer world, there are crackers, and thankfully there are hackers.

Hackers, remember, are the people who take what’s available to them to create something new and valuable. We marketers have learned in the last few years we work in a participatory culture. There are people who want to play along with you and help build your brand. They may use some of the cracker’s tools, but these people have a different motive. They intend to create, not simply to release. They are brand hackers.

Brand hackers are people like those who run MuggleNet and wrote “What Will Happen in Harry Potter 7?” During the run up of expectations for J.K. Rowling’s book, this was an absolute island in a sea of uncertainty and expectation. The book’s authors, in the words of one review, “sifted all plot points, all theories, and every statement J.K. Rowling has made.” Another review said the book “tackles and heightens the suspense that has been building.”

Which is to say, they created something new and valuable. I don’t know specifically how the author and publisher feel about the book, but Rowling has said that she likes fan fiction, not counting, naturally, the more puerile stories that have been put out. But clearly, there’s a great desire among fans to take ownership of the characters and ultimately of the brand — even to the degree of creating their own value from raw materials.

Leveraging the Hackers, Avoiding the Crackers

Online, hacking and cracking are big issues, because the Internet makes all brands participatory. If you have any doubts, type your favorite brand name, including the one you'[re responsible for, into a search engine and see what comes up. If you still have doubts, type in that same brand name with the word “sucks” appended to it.

Those are people who are actively engaging in building your brand. Sure, you can send them intimidating lawyer letters. Or you can think about how you can allow access to your brand and let users see what they can build. This is certainly easy if you run a Web site, especially an e-commerce site. Affiliate marketing is perhaps the ultimate form of brand hacking for e-commerce.

But any brand can allow in the hackers. You need to be wary of people who will abuse your good nature. That’s standard business, and it’s no different from the shopkeeper who cleans graffiti off his store windows.

The real opportunity involves cultivation of the hacker community, getting them to feel empowered and a part of your brand’s future development.

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