How do you keep the brand consistent in the world of abundance?
Thought I’d also share it here.
The first thing that pops into mind is Clay Shirky’s memorable quote, “Abundance breaks more things than scarcity.” It’s a point that’s been proven over and over. It was true 500 years ago when the printing press ended the need for scribes. And it’s true today. Think how the MP3 demolished the music industry, Wikipedia relegated the Encyclopedia Britannica to irrelevance, and Twitter displaced CNN as the first source of breaking news.
So what is abundance doing to brand consistency? Will the proliferation of user-generated content make it unachievable? Does it even matter?
Let’s start with the premise that abundance exists because of social media and the web’s infinite capacity for content. Videos, blogs, comments, reviews, updates, tweets, check-ins, and, coming soon, bits attached to barcodes – virtually all of it searchable – make it next to impossible for any brand to completely control its image or the content about it no matter how much money it spends. You can’t have a loud enough voice when media space is infinite. Nor can you prevent undesirable content when everyone’s a creator and broadcaster. Think Comcast Must Die, United Airlines Breaks Guitars, Motrin Moms, and Dominos Pizza’s disgusting employees.
I’m not sure consistency – at least in terms of messages and a look – even matters anymore. It’s more important to be present, visible, searchable and useful. But what does matter is this: making sure that customers and prospects have a clear sense of a brand’s promise and what they can expect from it. Think Apple (elegant and creative), Target (affordable design), Volvo (safety), Zappos (service), Panera (breadness).*
The brands that prosper in a world of abundance all have something in common. They are not defined by their messages, but rather by their behavior and actions. On the other hand, brands whose actions fail to reinforce a singular promise (Comcast, United Airlines, Dominos) are all subject to being defined by content created by others. I think of Comcast as a cable giant that’s notorious for bad service; United as an airline with a hub in Chicago and a tendency to break guitars; and Dominos as an unhealthy fast food chain trying to improve the quality of its pizza after customers complained and disgusting employees did rude things to the pizza. Perhaps if they delivered consistently positive products, service, behavior and content we might think differently.
So what can a brand do to maintain as much control as possible, to define and influence expectations, and to leverage the social web rather than fall victim to it? Here are my suggestions.
A brand isn’t what a brand says; a brand is what a brand does
Actions have always spoken louder than words. But in an age of instant word-of-mouth it matters more than ever. Brands must focus more on behavior. Every action is a potential conversation starter. While you keep a customer on hold, she’s deciding whether to tweet out something positive or negative. So invest more in service. Reward loyal customers. Surprise and delight them for no apparent reason. Do things that inspire positive word of mouth. Need help? Try returning something to Zappos. Fly Jet Blue. Stay at a W Hotel. Buy something in an Apple store. It will quickly become obvious.
Your product isn’t your product; it’s your content
Online you are what you share. Think in terms of content, applications, and utilities. Master basic conversation strategies that will engage your customers with added value. Nike offers Nike Plus. Lending Tree has all kinds of useful tools on its site.* Wholefoods shares ideas, tips, recipes and links from other sources not just itself. Dunkin Donuts has an iPhone app that helps win cred with your friends. And Este Lauder gives you a free make over then takes an avatar picture for you. Content, utility, and platforms that earn attention, generate links and populate the web.
Stop thinking target audience; start thinking community
We send messages to audiences. We engage with communities: asking, listening, sharing. Harley Davidson doesn’t sell motorcycles on its Facebook page, it asks questions of its community. With the Refresh Project, Pepsi isn’t thinking about consumers, it’s placing value on groups of people who do things for each other. Ford Fiesta learned more about its consumer and drove awareness through the roof not by trying to sell cars, but by giving them away to 100 young drivers, free of charge for six months. Consumers and brand joining forces to create community, content, learning and value. A lesson that Nestle’s needs to learn badly.
Speak with multiple voices
If you start with the assumption that you have to create reams of content and populate the web with blog posts, Twitter streams, and ideas that generate more content, it only makes sense to liberate and mobilize employees. Zappos encourages everyone to be on Twitter as individuals. Best Buy has its blue shirts offer help and advice to customers. Why not get as many of your employees as possible online, answering questions on Linkedin, connecting with customers on other social networks, even blogging? People want to do business with people, not companies.
Don’t tell the story yourself; get others to tell it for you
Media moguls, movie studios and ad agencies all had it wrong when they concluded there were two classes: creators and spectators. Today anyone with a Flip and a laptop is a creator, willing and even determined to make videos, produce podcasts, generate content in one form or another. Learn to harness that. Allow it, encourage it, reward it. You don’t need to solicit a Superbowl commercial but simply inviting your community (you have one, now, right?) to co-create with you increases the likelihood that the brand story you want told gets told.
If you want brand consistency these days, start by realizing that it takes action, lots of content, an engaged community, active employees, and a willingness to welcome the crowd’s participation.
What do you think? Better ways for a brand to control consistency in the age of social media?
* Zappos, Panera and Lending Tree are clients of Mullen, the agency where I work