Branding in The Social Age

Coke, Starbucks and Subway are leading social brands (courtesy of Slashfood)

How do you brand an organisation or its products?

First you need to build your brand. This is traditionally done through the following process:

1) Brainstorm over what your brand positioning should be. This results in the creation of your brand vision and promise. A brand vision is held by internal stakeholders (employees, board members, shareholders), while the promise is made to external stakeholders (customers, suppliers, etc).

2) Construct a brand architecture to determine the relationship between your organisation and its entities. They can be monolithic with a singular brandname like BMW; endorsed (eg iPhone with an Apple logo); independently branded like Ivory, Dove and other P&G brands; or a hybrid.

3) Identify your brand personality. Here Jennifer Aaker's seminal work is worth reading. Think of your brand as a person. What attributes would he or she have?

4) Craft your brand voice, making sure that it truly reflects its personality. This should consider the brand's persona and encompass tonality, language, energy levels, and messages.

5) Develop your brand identity. This determines how your brand looks - logo, symbols, taglines, advertisements, collaterals, website, uniforms, physical layouts, and other design templates.
6) Articulate desired brand and employee behaviours. What should your brand do or not do? How should employees interact with customers? How can service quality be "branded"? 

Once your brand blueprint is developed, you need to find ways to implement the brand. These often follow a set of rules and guidelines embodied in a brand manual which covers physical, behavioural, or virtual dimensions.

Often, integrated marketing communications (or IMC) is used as a tool for brand communications. Here, brand guardians (usually corp comms or marcomm directors) prescribe how every customer touch point should adhere to the brand identity. This normally results in a branding campaign to launch the brand in desired markets.

So far so good?

While much of Branding 101 still holds true, major adjustments are needed to prepare your brand for the social age.

For a start, brands need to move beyond product quality and features. They need to represent a belief, purpose or value which customers care passionately about. In the age of social activism, accelerated by the connectivity of social networks, brands need to stand for something.

Here, it may be useful to dig deep. Crystallise and define what your raison d'ĂȘtre is all about. Determine how these are going to help your customers and the communities in which you're placed.

Employees also need to become brand ambassadors. This doesn't merely mean speaking the right lingo when serving customers or wearing uniforms the right way, but modelling desired behaviours in line with your brand's identity. Staff should also be encouraged to talk about their company or product brands with friends and family members.

Here, the greatest challenge is this: should employees be "on-brand" after office hours? Are they expected to be brand emissaries even when they are partying, going on a vacation, or sending their kids to school?

Common sense should prevail here. If you're clearly identified with an organisation, your public behaviours (and here I do mean Facebook, Twitter, Blogs and Forums unless you set them on private) will influence what people think of your organisation. To eliminate the ambiguity, some employee guidelines on dos and don'ts on social media may be useful, policed with a light touch.

Increasingly, brands need to speak with a plural rather than singular voice. In other words, a brand isn't just what HQ communicates via advertisements, press releases or annual reports, but what every single stakeholder out there is saying. Instead of prescribing every word in the form of standard scripts, consider adopting broader guidelines that allow for greater flexibility in how your brand is experienced.

You should also consider building customer communities that are focused on their interests rather than yours. Provide useful content and utility both online and offline. Convey what your brand is all about, but do it subtly rather than heavy-handedly.

Where possible, demonstrate brand behaviours through helpful actions rather than sweet words. Like it or not, there is a growing distrust of big organisations and their relentless focus on profitability and shareholder value. Win over the trust of your stakeholders by organising activities that showcase what your brand does rather than what it says.

Embrace your stakeholders - particularly your customers - in shaping and building your brand. Give them a stake as co-owners of your brands. For a start, you can seek their views through focus groups, surveys and polls. Thereafter, you may even invite them to help design your next product. Give them the ability to influence how your outlets, uniforms, and packages look like.

In today's hyper-connected world, your brand will be less remembered by big flashy campaigns than small daily actions. Here, useful, relevant and entertaining content becomes king. Regular engagements also create a lot more impact on your brand than a nation-wide blanketing of TV, radio, newspaper and outdoor platforms.

It is the relationships you build which counts - not how much money you're giving away in the next lucky draw.

To stretch this even further, see if you can dispense with "campaigns" in the traditional sense and start movements instead. This should be both internal within the company and external with your other stakeholders. Imbibe a sense of mission in advocating "customer causes" - be they free upgrades to overnight delivery (Zappos), owning and resolving customer complaints personally (Ritz Carlton), or ensuring that a broken widget is replaced with no questions asked.

Finally, branding in the new era is less about talking than listening. Don't just push your promotional messages ad nauseum to your audiences and hope that they work. Instead, engage in regular dialogue with your communities and be responsive to their needs.

How you react to a customer complaint, feedback or request is far more important than how slick your ad is.

Are there other factors we should consider about branding in the social age?

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