The relationship of brands within and among social media communities is still in flux. Facebook is one of the first new media companies to attempt to embrace brands outside the context of paid-advertising with the creation of Facebook’s â€œbrand pages.â€� These pages essentially allow brands to have profiles and friends just like regular Facebook users.
At a breakfast I recently attended several people were outspoken over the â€œfriends-with-brandsâ€� concept, believing it absurd that people would choose to be friends with a brand. They questioned what benefits a brand could really extract from a â€˜social relationship’ with an individual and doubted whether brand friendships actually resulted in any form of additional customer loyalty. These questions have really forced me to think.
Readers of this blog know that the role which brands play among my generation is something I take great interest in. The term brand is almost synonymous with â€˜company’ and â€˜product’ in 2008. It seems anything that is popular or trendy is given â€˜brand status.’ Yes, at one time the term brand connoted a status among mere mortals. Indeed, the era of the internet has allowed products to essentially â€˜debut’ as brands overnight thanks to leaks, hype and buzz.
Whereas a company or product in our parents’ generation might have spent a decade or more building PR and â€˜branding itself’ now a product can make or break its reputation (and hence brand) over the course of a week. Take for example the chart below showing the popularity of search terms for Ford (one of the strongest traditional American brands) compared to iPhone and the Wii. Pretty amazing, right? At certain points both the Wii and iPhone have dwarfed one of the oldest and largest employers in America.
The question then is whether the role of branding as a means for long-term customer loyalty still matters in our modern era of â€˜choice paralysis’ and â€˜perfect information?â€� Because, if consumers no longer will stick with a brand for reasons outside of 1) cost or 2) quality than the role of branding is in for a tough time. However, if like in the case of the â€˜Mac Mindset,’ a company can capture the imagination of a key demographic group, then branding is still crucial.
I have written before about the role that certain brands play in self-identity, especially for high-end consumer goods like Vineyard Vines or Louis Vuitton. Owning such items allows people to identify themselves, particularly relating to class and social status.Â However, I believe that what really separates a company that is a â€˜brand with staying power’, versus a company that is simply a couple trendy products is what I’d call â€œvoiceâ€� and â€œreputation optimization.â€�
By voice I mean that certain brands move beyond simply selling products to sell a voice or certain lifestyle. For example, even if Patagonia stopped selling products, it would still be a force in terms of outdoor sport for its non-profit and philanthropy work, it’s rich history of sponsoring athletes and events and its catalogue which is more a work of art than a sales conduit. Good Magazine is another example. Its actual product is solid, but where it differentiates is in how it vocalizes its mission, sponsors parties and events, and really interacts with its core audience. You get the feeling that if you wrote in, someone would respond.
Reputation optimization implies that a brand works hard to ensure that all its new offerings and products meet certain standards: from quality to price point to mission. For example, with the iPhone, people were willing to wait overnight in lines because they have come to expect a certain consistency from Apple products. When Apple says something will be innovative, you know it will be (note: they may have recently hurt themselves with the pre-hype of Air).
At the end of the day, I think that being friends with brands – within the confines of a walled garden like Facebook – is a little silly. If I am truly a brands friend, it should be mutual giving/receiving done for all to see: I get something of value and I provide something of value in return (in most cases, likely marketing). For example, I’d be interested in an arrangement where Patagonia pays for 6 months of access to the Wall Street Journal Online. In exchange, I include a Patagonia logo on all my emails for six months. Or take, Facebook Beacon. The issue was that the relationship was not two-way. What if when I made a purchase at Overstock, it said Overstock will give me 5% off this order if I’m willing to let it share the news of my purchase with my Facebook friends â€“ now that is compelling!
Finally, in terms of reputation optimization, if I were Patagonia I would identify bloggers who frequently say great things about my company and thank them. Give them a reason to perpetuate the brand’s voice.
Brands have a long way to go online, but they also have a lot to leverage. Eventually someone will get it right.