Dude, That's My Brand!

by Michelle McGinnis on Tuesday, December 21, 2010 in Social Media

Ford surprised the advertising industry recently when it said it would skip the Super Bowl party this year. Hard as it is to imagine the entire game without a single fully loaded F-150 navigating a rocky terrain, the automaker’s CMO believes he can get more out of YouTube, Facebook and Twitter.

When a massive spender exits the biggest advertising gala of the year, it suggests that digital marketing has – finally? – reached a tipping point. But it also raises important question: In age where businesses can communicate one-on-one with buyers, how dramatically has the job of managing a brand changed? Does pushing big branding campaigns make sense when you can micro brand?

Branding hasn’t changed, just people’s understanding of it, according to Tamsen McMahon, Director of Digital and Strategic Initiatives at Sametz Blackstone Associates. Forget that sexy Mad Men scenario where expensive suits preach lofty sermons about products to the public. Branding today resembles a spider web of communiqués back and forth between the company, the customer and the customer’s sphere of influence. “The brand doesn’t exist in your headquarters. It exists in people’s hearts and heads. It’s the result of (customers’) interactions with other people who have had interactions with other people who have had interactions with you,” McMahon said.

As a result, branding should be given greater weight and substance within an organization. It can’t simply be a fashionable band-aid you stick onto a flawed product. “The brand manager’s job…is actually a much more operational one now, McMahon added. “It’s much more about how do we actually change the way this company functions.”

Social media opened the door for one-on-one conversations. Brands can better gauge consumers’ attitudes, interests and complaints. That makes social media a natural partner to the traditional branding campaign. “You still need some kind of advertising to define a brand,” Edward Boches, Chief Innovation Officer at ad agency Mullen and author of the Creativity_Unbound blog. “But what you need to do is make that work not be a one-way message.”

Companies need to take that mix seriously, not just shove social media responsibilities on one person – or even one team, Boches added. Instead, brands need to “educate” and “empower” employees to engage customers and prospects online, he said.

Sounds scary? Plenty of PR-conscious brands tremble at the idea of letting staff run their mouths online.

But Boches argues the risk posed in liberating employees to speak with customers is relatively low when compared to the upside.  Just as positive press has a short shelf life, so does negative press. Boches pointed to the outcry the clothing retailer The Gap heard through social media when it sought to change its well-known logo. “It’s a distant memory now,” he said.

Generally speaking, the branding world hasn’t been flipped entirely on its head. The Super Bowl will still be chock full of ads this year. People will still talk about the best commercials the next morning. But the smartest brands will find ways to talk with those people.

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