Who owns your brand – you? The public? This question has been the subject of many articles and debates.
The concept of “brand” is captured well in wikipedia.org. I quote, “Some people distinguish the psychological aspect of a brand from the experiential aspect. The experiential aspect consists of the sum of all points of contact with the brand and is known as the brand experience. The psychological aspect, sometimes referred to as the brand image, is a symbolic construct created within the minds of people and consists of all the information and expectations associated with a product or service.” That said, emphatically, social media (and other forums of socialization) have an enormous impact on corporate and consumer brands.
Branding starts as a marketing effort. “Company” (fill in any here) concisely defines the image they want to portray to the customer universe. If the brand is accurate (short on marketing fluff) it has a high probability that it will stick as long as “company” reinforces the brand definition with everything they do … they live the brand and continue to deliver the value that the brand stands for. One of the best professional books I ever read is titled Integrated Branding by Lynn Parker and F. Joseph Lepla. This book was released in the early 90’s (I think), but is still extremely relevant today – even with all the marketing advances today (read some sarcasm here). You see marketing has not changed, but the tools have.
A number of years ago I had a boss who said to me, “You can’t be good at marketing. You are too honest.” (He later got fired.) It is not that I am so honest; it is that as a marketer, I study my target market and understand them, who influences them, and what their motivations, needs, and pet-peeves are. I emphasize the importance of delivering them value. This assessment and knowledge, as well as what the company offers, drives brand definition. You can’t fool the public … they know $#it when they see it. Now in a social media age, they won’t only see it, but they will share and spread it fast.
Perception is reality. What does this mean in the context of social media? First, remember that social media is about building relationships by listening, having a two-way conversation, and delivering something of value to your audience. Not selling them, not broadcasting glitzy marketing slogans. If your company truly delivers value to the target audience, it should be easy to use social media and “live your brand.” Your audience will find you and your brand compelling. You will build trust and the brand you communicate will be believable and socialized. If you communicate BS and lose trust, you will see mud slinging. While perception is reality and the public owns the perception thus owning reality, you can have a good degree of control of that perception and that reality. You can have heavy influence on your brand, and more control than you think. It goes back to the fundamentals emphasized in the book Integrated Branding – know your audience, deliver to their needs, and live the brand. And now with social media, one more step – socialize you, your company, and your brand.
Social media provides tools to listen to your customer more. You don’t need to contrive a focus group. You can do this by listening in communities where your target market goes and converses, setting up your own community (WordPress, Ning) and attracting an audience there, or using private communities like Communispace (very effective, but not cheap) set ups. Living your brand means communicating with your customers. There are a number of examples of how customers shape brands by either positive or negative socialization. Which side do you want to be on?
Want some examples of very good uses/activities of social media reinforcing their brand? Check out “10 of the Smartest Big Brands in Social Media”.
If you live your brand and do all the right things, you may still encounter some negative comments. Tom Chapman in his article “Social Media – Protecting Your Brand Against Negative Buzz” has some good suggestions to combat this scenario.
“It’s not so much about brand control as it is about brand management and appropriate representation,” wrote Pete Codella who also offered some tips for going forward in his “PR & Social Media” blog post: “…once you’ve had your come to Jesus moment — realizing you’re not really in control of your brand — what do you do about it? You become a master at using new social media tools to publish your own content which then competes in the marketplace of ideas for mindshare. The more creative, authentic and entertaining your content, the greater your chances of popularity.”(Originally quoted on http://www.socialmediaclub.org/2009/04/30/smcq7-answers-brand-control-hah/”>SocialMediaClub.org)
So the key take-away here is that while you may not have complete control of your brand, you can administer good traditional marketing practices and utilize social media tools to highly increase your influence to take on higher degrees of ownership of your brand.
In closing I quote a tweet I read that just came my way from @KathySierra: “just an exercise… rather than focus on our *own* brand, what if we imagine our job is to realize/improve on the “brand” of our users?” – Good stuff, thanks Kathy.