If you love your brand, set it free.

If you love your brand, set it free.

You sweat your strategy. You labor over your logo. You fine-tune your voice and massage your message. But at a certain point, you have to let go. And if you’ve done the right things in creating your brand, customers will pick it up and make it their own.

In fact, some brands seem to be wholly owned by their customers. In most cases, that’s by design. Sometimes it’s by accident. But all great brands understand precisely what their customers love about them and go from there.

Not all brands can pull this off, however, and things can go tragically and hilariously wrong. Remember when Chevy encouraged consumers to go online and create their own TV spots? They probably wish they hadn’t.

But in the best scenarios, the results can be straight-up awesome.

Here are three examples of brands that thrive in the hands of the masses.

GREEN_Duct-Tape-Peep_smallThe week after Easter is basically Judgment Day for unsold candy, but for Peeps, it’s an amazing time. Deeply discounted, these marshmallow wonders find their way into Peep-eating contests and diorama-building competitions. While the people at Just Born Candy (who manufacture Peeps) certainly encourage this mania, it’s largely a grassroots effort. Community groups sponsor the events, and images of the results can fill an afternoon’s worth of Internet searches (trust us on that one). The delightful conclusion? The makers of Peeps are fans of Peeps fans. And it shows.

Sometimes a brand stumbles onto a following. Long before the manufacturer of Duck Tape took notice, legions of duct-tape adherents were creating their own off-label applications: everything from unorthodox home repairs to full tux-and-gown ensembles. The company gained an edge because it understood its customers’ passions and catered to them. The evidence? An annual $5,000 Stuck at Prom Scholarship Contest, and an ever-growing collection of Duck Tape featuring rainbow colors, animal prints, and sports team logos.

And then there’s GoPro. This maker of rugged, high-quality video cameras knows that, above all else, its users love to shock, amaze, and share. And GoPro rewards them by showing off the typically jaw-dropping footage generated by its volunteer army of gonzo cinematographers. The result is an endlessly watchable mutual-admiration loop, where the camera is as much the star as the subject. PINK_GoPro-Peep_small

Many other brands thrive in their customers’ hands. Doritos has perfected the fan-generated Super Bowl spot. Apple has built an entire brand on what consumers do with its products. And consider how many “Got Milk?” parodies exist, perpetuating a brand campaign that’s 20 years old.

Can every brand replicate successes like these? Maybe not. But any brand can benefit from knowing its audience and understanding why they think it’s special.

So if you celebrate that enthusiasm, and show your audience you care about them, your brand will do just fine out there on its own.