TLDR version: Brands can create strategic differentiation by delivering a fully realized consumer experience across an entire ecosystem. By moving beyond simplistic persuasion messages, mass marketed brands can now offer a richer, more relevant value proposition for consumers.
Doing a quick scan of how others are talking about brand ecosystems. It's a pretty suggestive term, but still nebulous enough that there's plenty of room for interpretation. I know we've been using the phrase here for years (but it's never gotten an especially warm embrace), but it seems like it's gaining steam more broadly.
Jennifer Rice talked about way back in 2004 and i know others were using the term way before that. Forrester's been talking about it for years too, most notably Nate Elliot's recent work on ecosystems and how to balance presence across paid/earned/owned touchpoints. Here's a useful, publicly available deck that lays it out visually. The official Forrester stuff is worth buying, by the way, if you're just getting your head around the subject.
Brandmdna take a different approach, looking at the various elements that make up a brand itself, suggesting the facets – Brand DNA, goals, purpose, vision, visual identity – form an ecosytem of sorts. I don't think this is the best use of the metaphor though, and i think it misses the importance of the connections the brand has elsewhere and to other contributors.
I think Dan Pankraz was onto this theme years ago, suggesting the best brands need to embrace their role in a broadly connected community. Extended quote:
it’s an organic model, where the role of the brand is to listen to the conversations happening around it, energise those conversations with interesting content and experiences. It’s all about giving the ‘brand community’ something to talk about within their own personal social networks and ‘influencers’ in youth culture are then able to add velocity to your idea penetration …eg: make sure it hits the mainstream as quickly as possible. It’s a virtuous circle that keeps re-inventing itself, so brands need to be listening to whats happening in culture so they can quickly react and create conversation around topics, new experiences. If you stop contributing, you’re dead.
BRR does a direct comparison to a true ecosystem, visually laying out the brand analogues to the biological counterparts. Their focus is on nurturing and adapting the brand overtime in a sustained way.
The brand ecosystem is not just an integrated network; it is a living system that functions by the interaction of each of the system's elements. When you think of the external factors of the brand ecosystem, like climate to a biological system, your competitors, markets and the economy can play an unexpected role in your company and brand. So its about quickly adapting and realigning every aspect of your system – not just about changing your logo or updating your website.
Here's their visualization:
The seemingly unstoppable David Armano has a useful visual that articulates increasingly complex connections a brand has to have to thrive. The write up is really useful too, arguing businesses are social, brands must be social, and the focus has to be long term and essentially generous for brands to thrive.
@Quarkstone's write up of the engagement ecosystem is definitely worth reading, too. He's squarely in the "networked world" view, and his approach blends a descriptive overview of what the components of the ecosystem are with a strategic role the element plays in helping the brand meet its business objectives.
Most recently, Cindy Chastain presented her talk about brand ecosystems at the 2012 MiMA Summit. While her primary focus was on the way work will change for experience designers as a result of the many touchpoints, her overview of ecosystems themselves as a business model strategy drive was really helpful. Most importantly, she articulated a critical shift in our thinking about messaging and the creative experiences that drive it. The ecosystem approach enables brands/businesses to focus primarily on a multi-faceted value proposition vs. a simple persuasion message. For mass-marketed brands (e.g. breakfast cereal, clothing, snack items, beverages, etc.) this is a huge deal. The competitive field for high-turn, consumables is no longer constrained to the product itself or the effectiveness of their mass advertising. Brands can now seek ways to differentiate and win over a full consumer experience – inclusive of inspiration, persuasion, service, support, promotion, and expression. Example A: Redbull.