Social media and brand consistency

For an upcoming book, my friend John Winsor, founder of Victor and Spoils and author of Baked In, recently asked me to write an answer to this question:

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

14 comments
Michael Yoder
Michael Yoder

Loved your post! It's really nothing new, just the old in a new light...actions speak louder than word; it's better to give than receive; the customer's always right, and so on. It seems that at times we become enamored with new technology and forget that underneath the technology it's about people. Thanks for helping us remember how to keep the social in social media and the customer in customer service.

Arafat Kazi
Arafat Kazi

So right! It's the oldest rule in the book and it's the most relevant. I've been thinking of Ogilvy a lot the past few weeks (well, I always do cause I love the man) and I remember how he mentioned that every point of interaction between your company and the customer is an opportunity to build your brand. I wholeheartedly believe in several of the brands you mentioned (Whole Foods, Apple, Panera, Zappos, Jet Blue) as well as several others (John Fluevog, Toscanini's, Amazon) and I always vote with my wallet. I am not rich by any measure but I've spent thousands of dollars on these brands and will do so again.

Michael Scheiner
Michael Scheiner

Edward, I think you touch on several critical components that do define brand consistency within the social media landscape. However, I do believe that a brands overall look still does play a role in how its first perceived visually and aesthetically across all of its touch points. After that, I agree with you that its up to the brand to be relevant in all of the various areas you mention. The best designed website, logo or packaging won't help a brand whose audience was misled or misinformed and is now broadcasting their dissatisfaction across twitter and discussion boards.

I'm wondering, when you break down the various areas that define and influence expectations (present, visible, searchable and useful), doesn't it all come down to "value"? Value comes by action, not just saying but by doing and demonstrating. Seeing the value in a community as opposed to the masses.
Inspiring your audience by helping, sharing and partnering. This than inspires others to share in the value of that brands beliefs or actions.

Simply put: Visual look+ content+ action+share+community = brand consistency, which = value.

Martijn Linssen
Martijn Linssen

Fine article Edward!

Instant word-to-mouth, I like that. In http://www.martijnlinssen.com/2009/12/in-2010-twitter-will-be-pulse-of-planet.html I predicted that there will be public and private Tweet boards in public places for quality monitoring: Foursquare, Brighkite, Gowalla, Twitter and Facebook should be contiuously monitored to see the public opinion on a place. That complaining customer might be right there sitting at your bar jotting down his opinion to his 20K followers... - and a smile and a kind word usually solves everything!

Just re-reading, I see 5 very strong points and the end of marketing as we know it...

Demolish, relegate to irrelevance, or displace: what will Social Media do to marketing?
.-= Martijn Linssen´s last blog ..Social Business Summit 2010 tweet collection =-.

Jeff Shattuck
Jeff Shattuck

Edward,

LOVE THIS BLOG!

Great post. To me, the answer to the question is really simple: You maintain a consistent image and presence by behaving consistently.
Just another way of saying what you said, "A brand isn’t what a brand says; a brand is what a brand does." I mean, that's it. Everything else you write, while certainly valid, simply expands on this point.

Jeff

Bruce DeBoer
Bruce DeBoer

@ben "The challenge is not every company starts in the same place" I think this is exactly right so the ones that start in the middle may have to work extra hard. I like this social media list as well. I think it is essential to think like a designer (#designthinking) no matter where your company starts.

My favorite definition for branding is: Great branding happens when you do everything else right. I think that has always been the case, true? Now it's hyper true so if you started your company in hopes that mass media blitzes would overcome inauthentic delivery, you’ve got some fast work to do.

Your best customer is the one you have so keeping them is all about what you deliver call it value proposition, brand essence, brand promise, it still boils down to authentically great delivery and the follow-up relationship. We should all feel the value of being part of the brand “community” (I used that word for you Edward since I know you like it). As a new customer – incentivized or not - I should feel eager to join.

Companies that show they value new customers more than the ones they already have are making a strategic mistake in my opinion.
.-= Bruce DeBoer´s last blog ..Listening to the Same Words Differently =-.

Ben Kunz
Ben Kunz

This is an excellent list of social media levers. The challenge is not every company starts in the same place; there are firms that are product- or operation-focused, not customer focused, with secrets, command-and-control structures, and perhaps incentive structures not aligned with customer service. This is why firms such as Nestle may fumble on Facebook by telling consumers not to tweak their logos; historically, they've succeeded by having tight internal controls.

For example, imagine, hypothetically, you run a cable communications company and your have a variable pricing strategy in which over time you raise rates on long-time customers. New customers pay $70 a month; old customers $130; you really need $100 to break even on average. You have to do this because every competitor offers initial customer incentives below operating cost; you have to acquire accounts below a level of profitability to compete, so you *must* jack up rates on *loyal* customers after year 1. Your best customer is not someone you engage with; it's a customer who goes to sleep and forgets about you.

It may not make a lot of sense to open transparent communications or empower every employee to chat honestly with customers. In this case, you want your customer relationships to go into a coma!

Many organizations are built on such secrecy. Many focus on products that must be fiercely protected (hide from competitors) or operations that drive down costs (at the expense of customer service). Social media is a tool at odds with such structures.

I agree with your levers, Edward. I think making them fit may take a broader integration process into organizations not built for open social media speed.
.-= Ben Kunz´s last blog ..Nestle's Facebook meltdown =-.

Arafat Kazi
Arafat Kazi

Err what I meant to say and forgot (it's been a long weekend) is that taking part in the conversation is part of good service. In fact, the most essential part. Ogilvy would approve!

Mike Scheiner
Mike Scheiner

Thank you Edward. Couldn't the "user generated" aspects fall under "action" ? Isn't that what its encouraging?

edward boches
edward boches

I like the formula. May use it. The only small thing missing for me is the user generated content/comments/criticisms/video responses that a smart brand wants to encourage but attempt to influence somehow. It's likely that in years to come more content about a brand will be created by the community than by the brand itself.

edward boches
edward boches

Thanks for such an enthusiastic endorsement. Will try and live up to it.

edward boches
edward boches

The question was how do brands maintain a consistent image and presence. In old days they had packaging, logo, design guidelines, typeface, etc. But, look at Nestle getting pissed off for people using its logo in mashed up ways. Or consider their responses. They are assuming that consistency calls for control. What brands need are new ways to be consistent without being in control.

Matt Charleton
Matt Charleton

I tend to agree, Edward. A little ingenuity and lateral thinking can go a long way; simply because there isn't a straight forward approach to leveraging social media due to industry perceptions, doesn't mean they don't exist.

However, blanket solutions don't work either. A social media goldrush is likely to result in many more losers than winners, with foolhearty approaches to these web 2.0 technologies. Clever campaigns such as that of Tastidelite with Twitter and Marc Jacobs on Foursquare are a sure sign of new and innovative ways of joining in the conversation WITH your customers.

I still maintain, that if issues such as the Nestle fiasco are to be avoided in the future corporations need to set out firm, yet SUPPORTIVE, communications policies for social media. Humanizing the voice is key and sometimes can lead to emotional outbursts, such as that of Nestle's; setting out the groundrules from the onset can help create that kind of consistency that we desire and still drive meaningful dialogue. Once we learn to shape the structure of how we communicate to the needs of our our community, first and foremost, we can really drive home the value of social media.
.-= Matt Charleton´s last blog ..Enhanced Mobility 2: ‘Foursquare: The Darling of SXSW’ =-.

edward boches
edward boches

Ben:
Some valid points. But there are dozens of ways for that cable company to surprise, delight and serve. Free movies on your birthday. Appreciation for longevity. Occasionally sending a loyal on demand movie purchaser a free bee. As for liberating employees, how many times have you been on the phone with a bank (Chase is the worst) where you realize no matter how good, loyal or tenured a customer you are, the service person has no idea, record, information or willingness to treat you as an individual. Even if that employee is not on Twitter, his or her behavior will end up there. So why not start to think in those terms? There are numerous ways for a brand to engage, spread content, solicit collaboration in the social age. And unless they want to become less and less visible in the age of infinite bits vying for our attention, they'll have to learn new ways of generating content, stimulating word of mouth, and allowing some aspect of their brand to be represented in the content and stream of the community.

Also, in your recent AdWeek column (which you forget to send me a link to) you argue some of the same points: lots of content, ideas that in themselves generate more content, experiments that extend beyond any one platform or device. We're saying the same thing in that regard. If a brand chooses to control everything in order to maintain consistency, it diminishes its presence. If it gives up control in return for more visibility, proliferation of content via community, it may lose any consistency. Unless that consumer generated or shared content reflects the best virtues of the brand. The latter only being possible if product, behavior, service, and engagement are all leveraged intelligently.
Thanks for reading and advancing the conversation.

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