guest post by Tamsen McMahon
Despite lip-service to two-way communication, branding has often been a one-way effort: we decided what we wanted people to think about our companies and designed marketing and communications that made that happen.
Or so we hoped.
But a brand is the collective impression people gain not only from you and your marketing efforts, but from all of their interactions with you—and the interactions others have as well (newly amplified through social media).
That means we need to look at the process of branding in different way: through a social lens.
Yes, we still need to understand our competitive landscape, our customers, and ourselves. We still need to develop a common set of messages, reinforced visually. We still need to design, sustain, and retool our efforts so who we are and what we stand for remains clear—and compelling—to our customers. But each step now has new implications.
To make our branding efforts truly interactive—truly social—we need to incorporate seven key concepts: insight, identity, resonance, clarity, coherence, relevance, and leverage.
Insight “Know who you are, and what that means.”
All good branding starts with research. Traditionally, that meant looking at the internal and external landscape to determine a company-centric view of the organization and what it stands for.
That's no longer enough. You have to listen to what your customers are saying, too. You have to understand not only what you think you are, but what they think you are and can be, as well as why they really care.
For it’s that combination—what you think AND what they think—that determines your new, social reality.
Identity “Be who you are, become what you want to be.”
Your brand foundation—who you are and want to be as both a company and a brand—is as unique as a fingerprint. What your company exists to do, its main areas of endeavor, and its core values and attributes all combine to create an identity that’s yours alone.
Branding is, of course, the process of articulating that identity in ways people see, understand, and, most importantly, care about enough to pay for. But social media doesn’t allow for the smoke and mirrors. There’s nowhere to hide if what you say doesn’t match up with what actually is.
Knowing yourself, warts and all, gives you not only a strong foundation on which to build your social branding efforts, it leaves you prepared to have the bright light of social media shine on you.
Resonance “Know whom you serve, and why they care.”
Your brand is a chord, made of many different notes. Like sound, your brand (and the communications and interactions that create it) is what carries over time and distance, resonating with some people and not with others.
But your customers aren’t one note. They’re not a gender, or a demographic, or a salary. They’re people. We can’t just turn on the marketing speakers and wait for customers to come.
Social branding means discovering how your customers perceive your brand as part of their brand. It means looking at why they use your products, and how, and then tuning what you do to resonate more strongly.
Clarity “Speak your messages in their language.”
Everyone in this social space is talking at once, and your brand has to rise above the noise. How? By being as clear as a bell, much like a knife striking a glass can be heard throughout a room.
Your message—the encapsulation of who you are, for whom, and why people should care—has to be short... and shareable. Since your message has to survive distribution by people whose choice of words is not controlled by you, including those fans you’re working so hard to resonate with, social branding focuses on boiling down who you are to an “irreducible core.”
How that core is described can, and should, change depending on the audience. Your board speaks a different language about you than do your employees or your customers. That’s why clarity in social branding comes from concept, not content.
Coherence “Look the part, be the part.”
Your visual identity, the visual representation of all your brand is, is a symbol that carries the weight of a thousand words. It’s a combination of elements you can own (your name, logo, tagline, etc.) as well as elements you come to own through focused and repeated use (things like fonts, colors, or approach to imagery). UPS, for instance, doesn't “own” the color brown, but at least in the shipping business, they do.
But the very meaning of "visual identity" has evolved, becoming both more dynamic and more customized to your and your constituents' needs (Google changes its logo almost every day…). Yet this “mass customization” of appearance still has to make sense to your customers, and reinforce their individual impressions of you.
Think of the story where several blind men man touch a different part of an elephant… and totally disagree about what animal they touched. Your customers aren't blind. And you're not in a dark room—quite the opposite. No matter which part of your brand they touch, your customers need to understand that it all adds up to you.
Relevance “Put it together, and put it to work.”
Branding takes a lot of planning, and so does social media. Once upon a time there were only a few channels, so planning was easy: use the available channels, and pump your message out.
But now there are as many channels as people who interact with you (and, potentially, if not planned well, as many impressions of your brand). So planning your social branding efforts includes not only traditional channels, but also new and emerging ones, as well as planning how to structure your non-marketing operations (procurement, delivery, customer service, etc.) to ensure you’re supporting your brand there, too.
What matters now is mattering where it matters to be. And that likely looks very different than it did even three years ago.
Leverage “Own your brand, and keep it healthy.”
Your most important ally in social branding is… your own company. Social branding doesn’t exist in one department, it involves the entire organization—because everyone in your company contributes to the experience your customers have and the impression of your brand that develops as a result.
If our own people don’t support brand, your customers never will, it’s a simple as that. But if they do, well, that’s where the magic lies. That’s why building your brand from the grassroots up (not boardroom down), is so important—it helps ensure that your social branding efforts are credible… and sustainable.
Social branding’s goal is to make every employee, from top to bottom, a brand ambassador. It empowers your customers the same way.
The more connected people feel to you, and the more included they are in the stewardship of your brand, the more powerfully they can leverage their networks on behalf of yours.
Evolution “This is a process, not an event.”
People change, tastes change, tools change. Social branding is—has to be—an iterative process, a cycle that happens over and over again: understanding through to action… and back again.
While these seven elements are key now, it’s likely they, too, will change over time, in direct response to the marketplace it serves.
That is, after all, what social branding is all about.
[image courtesy of Daniele Rossi]
Tamsen McMahon specializes in helping people and organizations align strategies in service of change. She joined Sametz Blackstone Associates, a Boston-based brand strategy firm as the Director of Digital and Strategic Initiatives, after over 10 years of client-side experience, most recently as the Director of Development Communications at Harvard Medical School.