Brand and Branding

Who owns your brand?

I don’t mean this in a “does you consumer now control the brand?” kind of way. I mean it in a, “where do people go to connect with your brand?” kind of way. I was flipping through an in-flight magazine yesterday and noticed a two-page spread for a diaper company. There was a massive call to action in the bottom right-hand corner of the print ad that said something like: “to lean more, please follow us on Facebook.” I found myself asking a very simple question: “what is this brand of diapers doing on Facebook that is so unique to the brand experience that it can’t be done on their own website?” The answer (after a quick review) is nothing. This brand’s Facebook page isn’t doing much to leverage the power of the social graph or use Facebook’s functionality to extend the brand narrative in a unique way. They’re just using Facebook as a place to have a less-interactive and less-branded website.

Why is it less-branded?

What’s better: one clear message or five messages on the same page? When you have you own website, you control the amount of messaging and the engagement. When you have your brand page on Facebook (and I’m using Facebook as a euphemism for any online social network, be it Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram, LinkedIn or whatever), your brand is housed within the Facebook branded experience and there could be ancillary brands (or advertisements, whatever) in the mix as well.

The tough question.

Brands have to start asking themselves one very tough question: are we on Facebook because it makes our brand experience better and leverages the power of these millions of connected people, or are we on Facebook, because there are a lot of people there and we have been unable to garner that level of attention with our own digital experiences and spaces? Facebook isn’t bad. Facebook is great. But, Facebook is only great to the brands that people care about, and it’s only great when those brands are already connected to their consumers and leverage the Facebook experience to do a whole lot more.

Brands are getting lazy.

It’s not just brands, it’s also the agencies that serve them. With each and every passing day, I’m seeing more and more brands forgo their own web and mobile experiences to use social media environments as their primary place to connect. Years ago, I cautioned against this. It became a more prescient concept when MySpace collapsed as Facebook began to gain its momentum. At the time, I had many of my musician friends suddenly lose their entire audience. Back then, it was much easier to build and update a MySpace page than it was to build and nurture a unique website. The problem is that when everyone started bailing on MySpace, the bands were left with little community. On top of that, they had no way to take the sweat equity (content, connections and more) to another platform. They didn’t own it. MySpace did. When MySpace changed their rules, the bands were affected but couldn’t do much about it. Same with Facebook: it’s their playground and they can take their ball and go home whenever they want.

Today.

Today, more and more brands are doing the exact same thing. It doesn’t matter if it’s Pinterest, Facebook, YouTube, Google + or whatever. They’re allowing their brands to not only play second fiddle within the compounds of these online social networks, but they’re selling their brands short with the shiny, bright objects du jour instead of looking out on to the horizon. Why is this such a big deal? We’re seeing our world become more and more mobile. Facebook, Google and everyone else have yet to demonstrate how they’re going to take their current connections of users and migrate them over to a mobile platform that is just as engaging and compelling as what we’re seeing in the current browser-based format. What makes any brand (and agency) think that they’re going to get this right? Immediately, any brand can create a new website in HTML5 and leverage responsive technology to develop a platform that is – at the very least – manageable across all devices and screens. At the same time, these same brands can spend as much time and money as they wish creating a better brand narrative – without the restrictions and limitations set out by any other digital media company.

Fear is the mindkiller.

It’s just easier to play in someone else’s sandbox, isn’t it? Fear is holding everyone back. Unlimited creativity and opportunity is holding these brands back. It’s a shame. A brand that can provide a true experience and extend that brand narrative by providing utility and being there – wherever – the consumer is, will be the winning brands of the near-future. If consumers want to shop the brand wherever and whenever they want, but these brands are locking themselves in to other channels and platforms, they’re missing the biggest opportunity that social technology has brought: the ability to create a powerful and direct relationship with a consumer.

What The Next Five Years Will Be About

The next five years will be about direct relationships. Several years ago a leading brand contacted us (Twist Image) about a new business opportunity in the digital space. The brand’s reality was this: as the years wane on, the amount of retailers that they sell to were diminishing. As the major big box outlets continue to grow and as consolidation rifles through the retail sector, the bigger brands only have a handful of outlets to sell their wares. With these retailers’ size and growth comes another reality: they begin to dictate everything from quantity and terms to acceptable margins. For some businesses, this is a dream come true because it secures significant sales, but for others (like this brand), their business was becoming a game of diminishing returns. It gets ugly fast when you run the numbers: eventually this brand will only have their product on the shelves of one or two retailers who are constantly dictating and changing the terms of sale… and the brand has no direct relationship with the consumer. How do you win? The brand’s idea was to create a new e-commerce brand online that housed only their own brand name products. This was the last chance. This was the hope and prayer to save the business: start a direct relationship with the consumer… today. Notwithstanding how the major retailers might feel about this project, it was a smart and wise play. For a brand to truly shape its own destiny, it must lead the relationship with the consumer as well. This must have been a huge factor in Apple’s decision to build out retail stores and not work exclusively with the major consumer electronic retailers. How are your direct relationships? Some brands do this well… most fail at it with spectacular fashion. Is it possible to be so judgmental? It is. One of the reasons I still enjoy the conversation and debate about the efficacy of Social Media marketing is that the majority of brands that struggle with ROI are comparing it to traditional push advertising instead of treating it as an opportunity to have real interactions between real people. A consumer that hits a "like" or "follow" button is opening up the opportunity to have a direct relationship with a brand. If all the brand does is blast back offers and specials, we’re not pushing towards direct relationships… we’re pushing towards broadcast advertising (in a new channel). The opportunity is now. I’m often reminded of an event I took part in called, The Art Of Marketing (sidebar: I’ll be speaking at an upcoming Art of Marketing event in Vancouver on June 9th, 2011 – it will also feature Gary Vaynerchuk, Guy Kawasaki, Avinash Kaushik and William Taylor). Also speaking on the bill was Seth Godin (Poke The Box, Linchpin, Purple Cow). Seth doesn’t hold any punches and made it very clear to the 1500 marketing professionals in attendance that this unique moment in time is not only a revolution in marketing – one that we will probably never again see in our lifetime – but that it was ours to either capitalize on or squander. The next fives years are going to be about these direct relationships. The next five years are going to about how well a brand can actually change the relationship from one that looks at how many people are in their database to who these individuals are and how the brand can make the connections and loyalty stronger. The stars are aligned. We have the technology. We have the data. We have the new media channels and platforms. We have the opportunity to publish whatever we want – in text, images, audio and video – instantly (and for free) to the world. What we do with this moment will be telling. It will also set the pace for everything that flows out of our marketing departments for the next decade. That big brand I talked about earlier? They never pulled the trigger on their e-commerce project and wouldn’t you guess it: they’re busy scrambling for "likes" on Facebook and are selling their products through the handful of big box retailers left. No direct relationships. No future.

Will A Brands Next Big Move Be A Journalism Department?

Who should own Social Media in the organization?

The challenge in answering that question comes from a lack of clear definition. It depends on how you (and your organization) defines Social Media. Some see it as a communications channel, while others use it to extend their advertising. Other companies use it for customer service and some use it as a platform to experiment with content marketing. None of those are inherently right or wrong, they’re just different uses (and there are countless more). The long-held debate (and yes, we’re looking at over a decade of Social Media usage, at this point) was about whether or not Social Media should be a part of the Marketing department or the Communications department.

In the end, Social Media is everywhere.

The companies that tend to benefit the most from Social Media are the ones who are finding multiple blends, tactics and campaigns to find their sweet spot. Some have used short, mid and long-term tactics against an overall business strategy, while others have chosen to blend one-way with two-way communications and more conversational types of strategies.

It’s the content, stupid.

While advertising has its place in Social Media, it’s all about the content. The platform allows everyone to publishing anything in text, images, audio and video instantly (and for free) for the entire world to see. It’s humbling to know that the success of your content is almost entirely driven by how relevant it is (or, how it moves your audience). It’s easy to make a case for content marketing, but it’s going to wind up being the wrong case you should be making.

Death to content marketing.

The problem with content marketing is the marketing part of the equation. Marketing content rarely connects with an audience. Why? Because it’s really just marketing material that is thinly veiled as content, and it’s quickly becoming the kind of one-sided content that turns people off. What makes great content spread is how unique and inspiring the message is, not in how it slants into a direction that ultimately positions your company as the only one to buy from.

Flipping from content marketing to journalism.

I was thinking about this Blog. I was thinking about citizen journalism. I was watching Geoff Livingston present at Webcom Montreal last week, and things started to click. Maybe the reason this Blog has some level of success is because it’s more like journalism than it is about what Twist Image offers and sells (I prefer to write relevant articles about this industry). Maybe citizen journalists are the best marketers that a brand could ever ask for, and maybe, Livingston is right that the problem with content marketing is the "marketing" part. Instead of plopping Social Media into your communications or marketing department, why not start a journalism department (or start off in a more humble way by hiring a journalist part-time to write content that your organization will publish)?

What could a journalist do for your brand?

  • They could write articles about the industry you serve without slanting the piece to favor your brand (this would give you credibility and build trust).
  • They could become valuable by commenting and adding more content in the many other primary spaces for Social Media that people in your industry follow.
  • They could interview the industry leaders for you.
  • They could add a layer of credibility to the content you’re publishing, because you’re very clear in your disclosures that this journalist’s role is not to write favorable content about the company, but to write great content about the industry you serve.

We’re not talking about a journalist who is working for you as a writer.

That would be missing the point. The idea here is to start creating content that is both valuable and needed. The idea here is to see if a tactic like this could lead to an entire department of journalists that are publishing the most relevant and interesting stories about the industry you serve. It’s about becoming the de facto recognized authority for your industry. It’s about adding so much value that your clients (and potential clients) need you in their lives because the insights and information that you’re providing are so valuable. The challenge (of course) will be in doing this in an honest and credible way. Marketers don’t have a strong history of being able to pull this sort of stuff off, because we just can’t help ourselves but to push our own wares in the moment of truth (which is sad). The only way this will work is if the brand truly does let the journalist be an actual journalist (instead of a corporate shill).

I think this is a huge (and interesting) opportunity. What do you think? Is the world ready for real Brand Journalism?

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Brands Cannot Be Human

Can brands be human? Can brands be more human?

People tend to shrug their shoulders, roll their eyes or simply get freaked out at the slightest thought of making something that is not like us "human" (if you don’t believe me, watch science fiction movies like A.I. or Blade Runner). Before getting into a philosophical and semantic debate over what it actually means to be "human," first think about what a brand really stands for.

What is a brand?

If you go back to the early days of products and commercialism, you’ll note that soap was just soap for a very, very long time. All soap was made the same way, and the only way to differentiate it was for the company manufacturing it to give it an original name and make it look different (ok, some of them smelled different too). In the decades after WWII, companies spent their time, money and effort trying to differentiate their products and services from those of their competitors. Some of those differences were legitimate, while some were not all that obvious. For the most part, brands came of age in a world where the things products did were pretty similar to what everyone else’s products did.

Enter Madison Avenue.

The only way to get around that problem was to create some kind of emotional attachment to one product over another. Enter Madison Avenue, which mixed advertising messages with psychology in the hope that a large group of people would feel emotionally connected to a product. And buy it. Lots of it. Over and over. In today’s world, most products and services are decent; in the old days, you could use advertising to sell something severely sub-par. In this age of consumer reviews, blogs, Twitter, Facebook and beyond, it’s hard to get away with being that bad. But we’ve also reached a point where that emotional connection between customers and brands goes both ways. The individuals behind the products are talking (or typing) directly with consumers.

They’re putting a human face on something that for years was locked behind a passive-aggressive customer service rep.

At the same time, the customers at the other end are developing their own personal brands. They’re publishing, broadcasting and connecting. We’ve come to a point where certain individuals online have more influence and power than some of the biggest corporate brands. What makes this so interesting (and scary for marketers) is that human beings are like snowflakes in that no two are alike. Those differentiators that brands fought so hard to implant in the consumer’s mind at the genesis of branding are intrinsic to humans. My Digital Marketing Blog will look nothing like your Digital Marketing Blog.

We want our brands to be more human because brands are made of human beings.

Take an industry you hate (airlines, mobile carriers, automotive, you name it) and you’ll note that these industries are not made up of evildoers. They’re made of people. They’re good people. They are people who are trying to make a living, trying to make a difference in the same communities as you and your children. They actually care about their customers. They want you to spend more with them and be loyal to them. Science fiction aside, it’s probably impossible for something un-human – whether it be a robot or a brand – to actually become human. But what we are seeing is that brands that embrace the human beings that make them so interesting (whether they work for them or just like chatting about them) are much more successful than others. These brands can engage people much in the same way us humans can – and have done since we first rubbed two sticks together and invited the people around us over to warm up.

These brands may never be human, but they can become more humane. What do you think?

The above posting is an article from Sparksheet. I cross-post it here with all the links and tags for your reading pleasure, but you can check out the original version online here. Sparksheet is also an official media sponsor of the @BrandsConf that takes place on December 2nd in New York City (which was the catalyst for this Blog post). You are entitled to a 30% discount on registration by using the promo code "sparksheet" – :

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In Praise Of Lazy

As excited as you and I are about Digital Marketing and Social Media, don’t ever lose sight of the fact that most people are not and will not ever really care. 

We used to talk about the 1% rule – that only one percent of an active audience will actually take the time to create content. That number has probably shifted higher because creating content is much easier and can be done in short order. It doesn’t take long to pump out a 140 character tweet on Twitter, and it’s equally easy to upload a picture or even your status on Facebook. Platforms like LinkedIn make it simple to create content by allowing people to not only update their status, but to also answer questions. It doesn’t take much to “like” something on Facebook or give a YouTube video a thumbs up (or down).

Still, the masses don’t care.

I recently overheard two people talking about Twitter. It went something like this:

  • Person #1: “How many people do you follow on Twitter?”
  • Person #2: “Only a couple of hundred.”
  • Person #1: “Do you ever talk to them?”
  • Person #2: “You can talk to people?”
  • Person #1: “Yeah, you use the @ sign and then they know you’re replying to something they said.”
  • Person #2: “Why would I want to do that?”

I can’t make this stuff up.

If the amount of people who open a Twitter account but hardly use it isn’t staggering to you (more on that here: Twitter users not so social after all), imagine the percentage of people on places like Facebook, YouTube and beyond who don’t even understand the basics of how to get the most out of their online experience. It’s not an indictment on the good work we’re all doing, it’s a reality.

How much work do you want to do?

There was a lot of buzz the other week about Digg and their all-new redesign (which included some additional site functionality). Many people think that Digg is doing this because their traffic is plummeting and they’re loosing relevancy in the marketplace (or that they’re trying to be more attractive to brands and advertisers). It’s not that. The Digg model is simply not something that the masses care about. Meaning: people just want the news. They want it well-produced (in text, images, audio and video) and they want it filtered and edited. Most people come home after a long day of work and they want to unwind. They don’t want to scour the Web for information, create a profile, upload a link, Digg it, comment on it, share it, promote it or talk about it on Twitter and Blogs.

It’s all in the balance.

Don’t be upset that the masses all don’t have Google Alerts or have a news reader set-up on their desktop. Most people are not going to download a Twitter client like TweetDeck or Seesmic Desktop so that they can have a Nasdaq-esque screen flowing constantly with each and every tweet that is related to their lives. Most people are mass media lazy. They’re used to sitting back and letting the media wash over them (from a TV sitcom to an article in Vanity Fair). They want to be entertained. They want to forget about their work day. They’re not interested in working more or creating their own media. The balance comes in recognizing both types of people. The balance comes in creating media (as a brand) that appeals to those who just want the information versus those who want to do something with that same information.

Do you think this is going to change – and that people will become more active – or are we all just too stuck in our ways?

Social Media Can Change The Corporate Culture

Most corporate cultures are what they are. Some have been around for decades. Others have had the same corporate culture for a century (or longer). Change is never easy, but change does happen. 

There’s this old trucker saying that goes: “if you can’t change people, you change people.” The truth is that not every competent individual is right for every company, and there are also some serious nincompoops who manage to stick with a company longer than anyone can fathom. Beneath the many layers of individuals, personal politics, power shifting and HR is a corporate culture. The brand’s raison d’ĂȘtre. It is not something that changes easily, but it does change. Mark W. Schaefer over at the Grow Blog doesn’t seem to think it’s possible. In his Blog post, Can social media change your company’s culture? I doubt it (September 22nd, 2010), he calls me out for saying that Social Media is changing corporate culture during our recent Podcast debate on Ghost Blogging (more on that here: SPOS #214 – The Ghost Blogging Debate With Mark W. Schaefer).

Social Media can’t change a corporate culture…

And, here’s why Mark thinks this way: “The idea that you could transform a company culture just because it needs to create a Twitter account or YouTube channel is probably fanciful. I believe the companies who are succeeding on the social web are doing so because they already have a company culture that would enable and reward that success. A well-managed, market-oriented company with a legacy of customer-centricity is going to do well with social media — and any other marketing innovation that comes down the line. If you look at a list of the most successful companies on the social web, there really aren’t any surprises are there? Their cultures are pre-wired to succeed.”

Social Media is not from within.

Mark is one-hundred percent accurate. A company that is customer-centric and open to innovation will probably be more successful in platforms like Twitter and YouTube, but that’s not my point. Take a look at Dell prior to Jeff Jarvis and his infamous Dell Hell post. What made Dell turn the corner was not a proactive decision to embrace Social Media. In fact, it was the total opposite. Social Media did not come from within. It came from consumers leveraging these powerful sharing and publishing platforms to speak their minds, and the net result of this content scared Dell’s top echelon enough to start re-thinking their corporate culture and how they connect with consumers. We’re all quick to cheer Coca-Cola for embracing their consumer-generated Facebook page, but let’s not forget how unhappy the company was when the Eepy Bird guys started mixing Diet Coke and Mentos for some volcanic fun. The company was not amused and reminded people that they would prefer if people consumed Diet Coke.

Coming round.

There are countless stories of major (and minor) corporate brands that over time have begun to understand how their brands now “live” because of Social Media and the brand ecosystem (Dell and Coca-Cola are just two regularly cited ones). A new Social Media marketing platform will not change a corporate culture, but enough voices in Social Media talking, sharing, creating and doing more is likely to get attention and force change. We have to remember that Marketers – if given the choice – would probably never want Social Media. They can’t control a message and they can’t keep others from speaking publicly about them. That’s scary, but Social Media is forcing this change in corporate culture. Whether brands are doing this proactively or because they have no choice is a whole other discussion.

Push beyond Marketing.

Look at LinkedIn. People are posting their positions. Peers and customers provide recommendations. Companies now have their own profiles. All of this information that used to be so closely guarded against the corporate chest is now open for the world to see. I’ve had the pleasure of sitting in enough small, medium and large corporate boardrooms to know that all of this cumulative content (beyond Marketing and Communications engagement) and information is pushing corporate culture to change. From Real Estate and big pharma to financial institutions and law offices. Change is happening… and it’s happening at the corporate culture level. It may be happening slowly for some or at breakneck speed for others, but it is happening.

What do you think? Is Social Media changing corporate culture?


Is Social Media Right For Every Business?

A great man once said, “Do or do not; there is no try.” 

Fine, it wasn’t a great man, but when Yoda said that now-classic line in The Empire Strikes Back, many a geek (myself included) nodded our heads as if it were the common-sense wisdom of the Dalai Lama. In fact, the concept of “trying” something without having a true strategy or direct outcome in mind is becoming a much more sensible approach to Digital Marketing channels. This is especially true with the varied world of Social Media, where channels and platforms like Twitter and Facebook roam wild with Chat Roulette and Wikipedia. One person’s video of six dogs chasing a gazelle with 80 million views is equally layered against an audio podcast that focuses on the best burger joints in Montreal. (No joke. Check out The Montreal Burger Report).

Is there room for businesses and brands in all this random content?

Of course there is. One of the primary reasons that businesses struggle to understand the world of Social Media is that it is often compared with one particular traditional media channel, instead of being seen as a healthy ecosystem where a bricks and mortar brand (and this includes products and services with a business-to-consumer or business-to-business focus) can create and do things with content (text, images, audio and video) across multiple areas with varying degrees of impact and audience.

PodCamp could well have been wrong.

Last week, close to 400 business professionals, hobbyists, media hackers and others with an interest in Social Media spent the weekend at UQAM listening to many different types of presentations (like Revenue Generating Trends for Bloggers, Going Against the Grain with Niche Podcasts, and Your Web Content: Forever or Fragile?) at PodCamp Montreal. What originally started as an unconference (a self-organized get-together where the content and flow of the day is organized and led by all participants), PodCamp Montreal has blossomed into a full-blown, two-day professional conference with sessions in English and French. (PodCamps happen all over the world – just do a search for one in your area).

As someone who has participated in and helped organize these types of unconferences over the years, it was surprising to hear many speakers say: “Social Media is not right for every business.”

The explanation given was that some companies simply don’t have the wherewithal. They don’t have the bandwidth, budget, resources, people, experience or the right attitude. It’s as if everything has to align like the stars to get into this very complex media mix. That kind of back and forth is a huge misconception. It’s usually done so that a company hires any one of these many consultants/speakers to pay them to do the work.

The truth is, asking, “Are social media right for my company?” is a flawed question. Instead, ask yourself: “Should my business be sharing who we are and what we do with the world?” If the answer isn’t yes, feel free to pick up the computer or mobile device that you’re reading this on and whack yourself upside the head until you realize the answer is always yes!

That’s why you’re in business: so more and more customers can find you, buy from you and tell everyone that they know how great you are.

This flawed thinking that Social Media are not for everyone happens because many of these self-anointed experts focus on only two areas of Social Media:

  1. Whatever platform is most popular (like Facebook and Twitter).
  2. The notion that Social Media are all about the “conversation” taking place online about you, your competitors and/or the industry you serve.

Those are both valid spaces to play in, but they’re not even close to the only ones or the reason to get involved in the first place.

What makes Social Media (or any other type of media) truly “social” is the ability to share. Whether that is done on an internal basis with your employees or publicly (or both), sharing is the best place to start. Share everything there is for people to know about you (news, articles, white papers, your thoughts, etc.). Share beyond your own hallowed digital walls (your website) and push that information into the channels where people who might be looking for what you have to offer frequent.

Share and share alike.

Optimizing your site so it can be found on search engines is important, but don’t forget YouTube is actually the second-largest search engine (after Google) and people are doing all kinds of searches within their online social networks like LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook and beyond. They’re scanning the industry blogs and podcasts to see who is saying what about whom. The more you make your content findable, the more findable you become – everywhere.

Once you begin to benefit from this, you’ll begin to see the many additional options that are available – from tools that can help you to better collaborate both internally and by leveraging the wisdom of your crowd, to listening to the existing feedback and dialogue surrounding your brand. All this public content is there. It can help you better analyze your market position, what customers really think about you and your competitors, and it can even provide indications as to how you can improve and innovate.

Social Media is for every business… that’s just stupid.

What if you sell toilet paper? Are Social Media still right for your business? Charmin released an iPhone app called, Sit or Squat, which allows you to locate, rate, comment on and even add the whereabouts of a clean public toilet. The feature-rich application also allows you to narrow your search to bathrooms that have a baby-changing station (as one of many examples). This crowd-sourced initiative has been downloaded millions of times and – as someone who travels as frequently as I do – has a special place on the first home page of my iPhone. Charmin is enabling and empowering people like you and me to share with the intent of having a better bathroom experience (with the hope you’ll consider buying Charmin toilet paper as you make your way through your grocer’s aisle).

If Charmin can make toilet paper social, what’s got you all blocked up?

The above posting is my twice-monthly column for the Montreal Gazette and Vancouver Sun newspapers called, New Business – Six Pixels of Separation. I cross-post it here with all the links and tags for your reading pleasure, but you can check out the original versions online here: