How To Organize A Brand Hackathon (And Why) – Interview With Betabrand’s Chris Lindland

Betabrand invited customers to hack its brandWe recently ran a post covering the Facebook-powered sock insurance program from Betabrand, maker of geek chic such as the Executive Pinstripe Hoodie and the Nauseating Holiday Pants.

This led to a series of email exchanges with Betabrand founder and CEO Chris Lindland, who pointed me to a number of other campaigns the brand has done–some of which were created at a series of hackathons that Betabrand hosted this year.

Asking your customers and fans to hack your brand is about as social as a social business can get. You don’t own your brand: your customers do. And hosting your own brand hackathon is a brilliant way to find out just how far your brand can go if you let them have the controls.

If you have customers and fans, why wouldn’t you give them the keys to the playground and see what they come up with?  “I think the reason people don’t do brand hackathons is brand managers jealously guard their tag lines, logos, and look,” Lindland told me.

If this is you, you’re not ready for a brand hackathon. Read on to find out what you’re missing.

What’s the ROI of a Bigfoot Sighting?

Betabrand’s first exposure to hackathons came earlier this year, when a group of Las Vegas-based developers invited Lindland to host a hackathon. He agreed after they promised to build an app for him in exchange.

Sightings was the first app developed for Betabrand at a hackathon in Las Vegas

The result was Sightings by Betabrand, an iTunes app that lets you add Jesus, the Virgin Mary, or Bigfoot into any iPhone photo you take — the perfect companion to help launch the brand’s new Sasquatch sweater, knitted from “100% pure Bigfoot fur.” More than 6,000 fans have downloaded the app so far, sharing Sightings with family, friends. Here’s a best of collection on the brand’s Facebook page.

I did ask Lindland the obvious question:  Is there any way to tie the app downloads directly back to sweater sales?  Lindland’s answer: No – “the goal was to submit an app in 24 hours. With more time, we could have turned it into the holy grail of Jesus, Mary, and Bigfoot commerce.”

How to Host a Brand Hackathon

Today is awesome. #betabrand #hackathon  on TwitpicThe positive experience with the Las Vegas hackathon is what inspired the Betabrand team the idea of hosting its own hackathon, which took place in San Francisco in late September of this year.

The company used its customer newsletter and social media to promote the event. “Compensation: pants.”

A total of 20 hackers showed up. The mission? “To hack on our brand — to develop new ways to experience Betabrand,” according to Lindland.  The key, he says, is to “focus on very small ideas.  Hackathon’s are usually 24-48 hrs long and it’s hard to get folks to work on something that’s 80% of the way there afterwards.” It’s also a good idea to communicate as much as possible in advance of the event to “bat around, or bat down some ideas that won’t work beforehand.” was the winning app developed at Betabrand's brand hack eventThe best Betabrand brand hack from the event? (Totally safe for work – but you won’t stop laughing for a long while, trust me). Another group came up with an ad campaign that featured missing sock ads that they posted around town at foot level.

Your Brand is a Platform

“Betabrand is perfect because we have such an open, experimental approach to branding,” says Lindland.

From its Model Citizen photo campaign to its Disco Open Source Project to its ThinkTank Community Idea Factory, Betabrand has built its brand around customer engagement. Its fans are its biggest marketing asset, and the company uses its brand as a platform on which its customers can express themselves.

If your brand culture is not quite as open as Betabrand’s, you can still invite customers to participate in a hackathon event–and start the process of listening, learning and creating a more open culture. Which any brand on the social web needs to be.

And here’s another tip from Lindland:  “You should simply hand over old or under-performing product lines and see what people can do.” What do you have to lose?

Have you participated in hackathons? Would you sign up for a brand hackathon such as this one? And would you host a hackathon for your brand?