5 ways Social Media is changing branding forever

Brand managers: Social Media is here to stay. Deal with it.

Beg to Differ gets asked three related questions all the time: should brand managers really care about this Social Media thing? Isn’t it just a flavour-of-the-month fad? Does it really change anything in the branding universe? The answers: Yes. No. Oh merciful heavens: YES! Here’s why.

Sea change: just another great turning point (Turner's Trafalgar)
Sea change: just another great turning point (Turner's Trafalgar)

1) Push marketing is dead (along with the other P’s)

Remember the old “Four P’s of Marketing” – Product, price Promotion, doctor Price, and Placement? They’re dead. Or rather, they all still play a role in marketing, but the big assumption behind them is dead – what I call the “Silent Fifth P”: PUSH.

It’s just not enough to buy a gazillion dollar ad on the SuperBowl and just watch your earnings roll in (although to be fair, it never really was). With the massive proliferation of content sources and the corresponding death of the old “big media” model, you just have to work harder today than you ever did before.

The trick for brand managers: learn to stop pushing and start listening to the real owners of your brand: your customers.

2) The owners are speaking; can you hear them?

Last month, Senior VP of Marketing Clyde Tuggle summarized the big lesson learned from the New Coke fiasco 25 years ago: “You don’t own your brand; your customers do.” (Great summary here).

If that was true then (and it was), it is painfully obvious now, as the owners of your brand have a louder and more sophisticated voice than ever. And when things go wrong for a brand like Toyota or United Airlines, you don’t have time for old fashioned PR damage control: these bad vibes are travel at the speed of human thought.

The trick for brand managers: make sure you are using Social Media to build a) communities of support and b) the capability to respond.

3) Crowd-sourced creative is changing the game

There is a lot of hand-wringing in traditional advertising and design circles about this stuff – witness this blow-up from our favourite brand design blog Brand New or the comments on this 2009 Beg to Differ post.

The dirty word being used here is “spec work” – that is, companies that should be able to pay a professional to do this stuff are instead using contests or other means to get creative work from a broader range of players. And while I’m a big believer in paying people for a good day’s work, I also think that the debate sounds a bit too much like the music industry going after 12-year olds who download MP3’s. It kind of misses the point.

The trick for brand managers: how can you use the power of crowd-sourcing (without burning too many bridges)?

4)  Open-source branding will change research

But the idea of  crowd-sourcing goes way beyond getting a logo from 99designs.com. It is actually changing the raw DNA of brands by throwing open the gates of the branding process to all interested members of the brand’s audience.

It’s similar to the Open Source movement in software – except the “code” being exposed is the values, character, and passions of your customers for your brand. (Great summary from Ryan Anderson here).

A couple of recent examples: this Google research cleverly packaged as a YouTube viral video, the A Brand for London project, or Fluevog.

The trick for brand managers: how can you tie open source ideas into your brand management routines? (Hint: call these guys for ideas).

5)      Humility is sexy again

Have you noticed the new tone in advertising lately – led by the newly humbled auto industry? It seems like companies are racing each other to out-humble each other. And that can only be a good thing.

The trick for brand managers: maybe it’s time to stop telling your customers how great you are. It doesn’t work on a first date, and it certainly doesn’t work in a relationship. The alternative? In the immortal words of Otis Redding: Try a Little Tenderness.

Jumping the FailWhale: Twitter’s biggest problems

This morning’s Twitter outage, symptoms is only one of the many problems facing brand Twittter. Back in June, order early in my Twitter career (yes, the Twitterverse is turning quickly my friends) I blogged about this – No Twitter Brand, what are YOU doing? But now that I’ve had time to think about this some more (thanks for the outage Twitter!), I’ve got some more thoughts – all of which require more than 140 characters.

Aquatic superstar rising (falling?)... Just one of the great fanart images at www.failwhale.com.
Aquatic superstar rising (falling?)... Just one of the great fanart images at www.failwhale.com.

Over the next week or two, I’ll deal with 3 major brand credibility problems Twitter is facing, followed by a set of solutions I’ll modestly put forward. 

The Jumping the Failwhale series: Twitter’s biggest problems

  • Problem 1: Brand Promise: (in this post – see below) the free ride will have to end, and the real owners of the Twitter brand will not be pleased.
  • Problem 2: Brand Character: (coming soon) Twitter feels more “Social” and less like serious “Media”. Basically, the boss ain’t buying it, and unless something changes, he may be right.
  • Problem 3: Brand Personality: (coming soon)Despite the fresh, breezy cartoon-graphics, the kids aren’t twittering. Twitter is fast becoming an old people’s brand and the problem is hard-wired into the product.
  • Solutions:  (coming soon) My 10 Recommendations to save Twitter.

Problem 1: Brand Promise. The free ride will end.

A Brand Promise is the implicit set of expectations a brand builds up in the mind of its customers over time. And just like a real-world promise, the owner of the promise (and indeed the brand itself) is the person to whom the promise is made: the customer. Twitter carried by whales

The promise of Twitter 

Twitter users have come to value, and expect, a free, open online community accessible to all with 1) an Internet connection and 2) enough time to cultivate a Twitter brand of your own.

The problem with this is that of course, the party can’t go on like this forever. There are real world implications to the scale of Twitter’s success. Yup, I mean big crashes like this morning. But more to the point: money / revenue / filthy lucre / a basic business model. This is of course a no-brainer, because it’s a problem with all Social Media. Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, YouTube, and a thousand other online communities and services have built their huge audiences fast on the same implicit promise.

Try it, use it forever, and pay nothing – with no ads – all of these are very attractive hooks to get people in. But having set those expectations in customers’ minds, no one should be surprised if they feel betrayed if you suddenly try to “monetize” their “eyeballs”. Oh, they’ll understand. But this isn’t about rational thought; it’s about a broken promise.

I can hear the objection: “but we never said it would be free forever”. Doesn’t matter. Your actions led them to expect it would be free forever, which in their mind is the same thing.

A summer-friendly analogy

Imagine that one day I mow my neighbour’s lawn, then laugh off any payment he might offer by saying “that’s what neighbours do”. Don’t you think it would make him happy and strengthen our neighbourly bond? Probably. As long as he didn’t suspect my motives.

Which leads me to the following week, when I tell him “I’ve decided that the price of gas being what it is, you either have to pay me a dollar to do it again, or listen to a 5 minute pitch for my business.” 

He’ll understand. He might even recognize that it’s a really good deal I’m offering. But do you think he’d be happy about it?

An example from my practice

We dealt with this issue last year while I was acting Vice President of Marketing at CoursePark.com – an online learning management network. We played around with a number of options, from totally free access (like Facebook or Twitter), to pay-per-use, or just a low-cost subscription. Our solution in the end: give users a free-forever option, but a) be very clear what the limits were, b) set clear prices on the commercial e-learning content we sold through our library, c) give them an expanded range of capabilities for free in exchange for sharing their content with the rest of CoursePark, and d) make it easy and transparent to allow them to upgrade to the “enterprise” version for larger programs / more support / more member controls.

The bottom line

Be careful what you promise (even implicitly); your customers will hold you too it.
If you’re building a business, people are cool with that – if they know your motives in advance.
If you have built expectations that you can’t sustain, don’t assume that you can change the rules at will. You will pay for it.