A brand is a surprisingly delicate thing. It’s a picture built up over years of exposures: a television ad, a product experience, a customer service representative on the phone, a recommendation from a friend. Most simply, a brand is an idea, one that evolves with each new experience, and that is only valued as much as the consumer values it.
The question of how brands are built has never been more important to marketers because of the growth of digital technologies. For marketers, the arrival of social media has triggered a rocky journey from the familiar tools of brand building – logo, packaging, retail presence, advertising, product experience – to a new media landscape where a 140-character tweet can sway public opinion. Most significantly, it’s an environment in which information and ideas about a brand may well come from every direction except the brand itself.
A brand is no longer just the product of years of carefully planned marketing campaigns and product experiences. It’s also the result of the layers of meaning that consumers add as they comment, tweet, check in and tag their way through daily life. Building a brand today means relying on a stakeholder who sits well outside the marketer’s control – the consumer – and the most effective way to establish brand understanding is to incorporate the endless stream of consumer-generated content as part of the branding strategy. The brand owners have, in fact, become shareholders. Consumers must now be seen as partners in brand building.
Brand owners no longer control how the story is told
If brand building is the act of storytelling – involving the consumer emotionally in what makes a brand different and memorable – one of the most important changes produced by social media is that the brand owner can no longer lay claim to being the teller of the story. Only a few years ago, marketers could confidently push their messages towards consumers through the usual channels of TV, print and out-of-home.
Now the roles are blurred. Brand owners have ceased to be only voice that counts. Consumers share the role of storyteller, through comments, photos, blogs, and hashtags. In fact, consumers have proven to be highly vocal in social media about the brands in their lives: 50% of web users agree that social media helps them share important information about a brand with others, according to an Initiative study. And when they write comments online, only 13% do so to praise, according to TNS; 77% are there to share or help (meaning help fellow consumers, not the brand) while a full 10% complain.
Given the mix of consumer ideas and opinions about brands, marketers can’t just hand over storytelling responsibility to the consumer and hope for the best. If anything, the brand owner must be more active than ever. The marketer’s job becomes to actively manage the story in social channels; to set the conditions for consumers – particularly influencers – to circulate the right narrative.
Opening the brand up to consumers
What does this look like in practice? It’s Volkswagen growing its likeability by asking Chinese car drivers to submit their ideas for the car design of the future through the People’s Car Project. It’s Intel and Toshiba teaming up to reach cynical Millennials through an online miniseries that followed the adventures of a woman trying to escape from a room using a laptop and the help of 53,000 Facebook fans. It’s Oreo receiving a flood of ideas from consumers during the finale of its 100-day campaign celebrating important milestones with a cookie visualization.
These types of award-winning programs are by no means easy to execute. First, marketers need to make tough choices about which platforms to use from a rapidly changing new media landscape. Will Facebook be a primary platform while other social media platforms – Twitter, LinkedIn, Pinterest—act as traffic drivers? Marketers also need to navigate the subtle rules of conduct when entering the semi-private space of social networks.
Then comes the hard work of distinguishing the brand message from all other voices. Beyond competition from rivals, the brand is up against a universe of other content generators: bloggers, publishers, non-profit organizations, institutions, and, of course, millions of consumers. Brands need to either add value to current conversations or – even better – start new ones. Finally, from a production standpoint, few marketing departments are ready to make the transition from campaigns to the always-on cadence of social media.
If a brand wants to be relevant in 2014, there is no choice but step directly into the fray. The challenge now is to harness the consumer’s social media activity as a force to help brands prosper. Whether the brand is involved or not, consumer conversations about the brand and category are already taking place. Marketers who are ready to include consumer-generated content as part of a long-term strategy are therefore positioning their brand for success.
With this as the context, brand owners need to recognize that the consumer can no longer be viewed as just an audience. From the moment that consumers began to share their perspective on brands with the rest of the world through social media, they became storytellers as well. There are, of course, implications to this shift.
Here is what I see as the three most important ones.
1. Social media must be a central channel. For consumers to be partners in storytelling, social media needs to be a central channel in brand strategy, coupled with a nuanced understanding of how to navigate social platforms.
2. Marketers must start with (and build upon) a clear brand idea. If consumer content is expected to build to a positive understanding of the brand, all efforts need to be anchored by a clear brand idea. Some examples are Coca-Cola and “happiness” or Dove and “real beauty”. When a strong brand idea unifies all communications, consumers are primed to accept the social commentary that aligns with their understanding of the brand and then filter out the rest.
3. Never forget your other metrics. To truly give consumer participation its due, the quality and volume of social media activity needs to be incorporated with other brand health metrics.
It’s the age of the co-created, co-managed brand. Marketers who are ready to open up the brand to a partnership will find consumers ready to open up their lives and networks to brands.