Branding and Social Media: “I Now Pronounce You Man and Wife”

Over the past several years, with the explosion of freely available social media tools and the corresponding increase in the public’s use of these, I’ve become more and more consumed with a central challenge that social media presents to branding. Specifically, with these two disciplines we have two seemingly opposing rules of communication at work. Let’s put them in Ten Commandments form, since they are so important:

1. “Thou shalt communicate consistently.”

2. “Thou shalt communicate authentically (and increasingly, support authentic and transparent feedback to you from your customers).”

In the “olden” days (for me the “olden” days are roughly 2007, before I started actively studying and engaging in social media myself) simply obeying rule #1 was enough, and even that was tough, for two reasons.

--First, companies didn’t have a handle on all the touchpoints between themselves and the public that had to be controlled in order to create a consistent image. They understood that the ads and the press releases had to look the same, but they didn’t necessarily understand that the customer service reps had to make a similar impression as the ads; that the community outreach flyers couldn’t seem homemade; that internal employee newsletters played a part in what external people thought of the company; and so on.

--Second, companies didn’t understand that just because they said something, didn’t make it true in the eyes, ears, and hearts of their constituents. So for example if a crisis were to occur and they said, “we are blameless,” that did not necessarily end the public’s concerns over their behavior. Or, in a variation on this theme, they might struggle to get “key messages” worded right, but what they didn’t necessarily understand was that if the public didn’t believe the key messages in the first place, then all the wording in the world didn’t make a difference.

Beginning roughly after that, companies faced an additional imperative, and that was to engage in a new and alien world, full of weird beings, broadly known as “social media.” A universe of virtual elves sprang up to confront us in this new world, speaking in the language of “Blogger” and “Twitter” and “Yammer” and “YouTube” and “Friendfeed” and “Facebook” and “MySpace” and “LinkedIn” and “Reddit” and “Digg,” and that’s just to name a few. Forget about strategy, suddenly everybody was out there, hanging out and doing business in the equivalent of the coolest nightclub in the city, and if you didn’t go there or at least know how to get past the bouncer, you were a total relic and could be easily bypassed by your savvier competitors.

So in the beginning it was just about broadening the brand to an expression space in the world of social media. All fine and good, if you’re still in the world of Commandment #1, consistency. But increasingly, with the growth of social media came a complete revolution in the relationship between the brand and its audience. Whereas in the past the audience was happy if the brand could just be consistent in terms of explaining what it did, and of course had to deliver on its promises, now there was a new demand: that brands be so authentic, so good at what they did, that they could handle virtually uncensored self-expression with respect to who they were and what they did.

In other words, in a social media environment, for a brand to succeed it has to allow its customers and its employees to say whatever they want about the brand, knowing that those groups will ultimately tell the same story that the brand is telling about itself. That is a very, very high bar of performance for a brand to achieve and I would argue, almost unattainable. Yet it is exactly what people demand today. Anything less, to go back to focusing on image and consistency alone, leaves the brand at risk of falling into “propaganda” mode, where brand representatives are expected to robotically spew whatever the message of the moment is, even though the reality underneath may not match at all.

Let me say it again: Today, we live in an environment where branding remains as important as ever and social media is only getting more important. Therefore, not only do brands have to present a consistent image themselves, but they have to deliver on their promises so well that their stakeholders, without prompting and of their own free will, say the exact same things about the brand as the brand says about itself.

This – marrying your professional image with the public’s spontaneous impression of you - is the essence and the crux of developing a social media strategy that supports the brand, and conversely a brand that incorporates social media. It’s not about pushing out yet more messages that say the same things as your brochures. Rather, it’s about engaging the public in a conversation, building a relationship with them, promoting mutual trust between the brand and the stakeholder so that by the time the stakeholder opens his or her mouth in a blog post or a message board or a chat room or on LinkedIn, Facebook, or any other place, they are telling the brand story and even advocating for the brand more passionately than the brand can advocate for itself.

Am I saying that there is no room left for image-building? Of course not. People will always want to buy into a fantasy that they hold and that perhaps others share. Great brand-builders still know how to create new images virtually from scratch, and to generate a thirst for those images that is unparalleled. The problem, however, is in sustaining that image. It’s like blowing up a shiny red balloon: There is a part of you that wants to gaze at it, and another part of you that wants to pop it just because it’s really just a container of hot air inside. This impulse, to get to the truth of the balloon if you will, is more and more prevalent today, as leaders and celebrities fail to live up to the image of perfection they present. It’s almost like we try to tear them down before they can have the opportunity to disappoint us.

So the trick, I think, is to anticipate both the public’s hunger for image and their desire to tear down that image, and find ways to play with the tension – to surprise, and delight, and always be one step ahead of the public imagination. And that is just on a conceptual level. On a practical level, the task is to build an extremely savvy and sophisticated, fully integrated, branding and social media machine, one in which every single method of interaction both externally and internally, and every single decision, is subject to the demands of the brand. In an organization like this, the brand is based on a very simple, compelling, and broad essence that its people can support and that the public will grasp onto and buy into.

To get down to earth a bit, a perfect example of this approach at work is now-President Obama’s election campaign. The word “Change” was its brand, and it was completely effective, to the point where people still repeat it, over and over again, whether or not they agree with the President now. From a branding perspective, “Change” was simple, compelling, broadly applicable, and the public grasped onto it and bought into it completely – the right message at the right time. From a social media perspective, the communication that was coming out of the campaign was the same as the communication taking place among the public and flowing back to it. On the flowing-out side, not only did the candidate call for change, he had a history of trying to create change, and he personally, by virtue of his diverse background, represented the change the country sought. On the flowing-around and –in side, there was extensive peer-to-peer social networking, as well as YouTube and other social media expressions from the public to the candidate indicating that they understood the promise, believed the promise, and supported Mr. Obama’s ability to deliver on it. The Republican competition, with John McCain and “newcomer “political brand Sarah Palin, had plenty going for it as well, and Sarah Palin is clearly a strong brand in her own right, but they were up against such a powerful mix of branding and social media that they didn’t really stand a chance.

Some may claim that in today’s “age of transparency,” social media has superseded branding and the drive to present a unified, consistent image to the public. I totally disagree. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth: The public, bombarded both by choice and crooks, wants to deal with organizations that have a good reputation and that will treat them well as a customer. (Can anybody say “”) So when you build and maintain a strong brand, one that tells its story and makes its promise consistently, over and over again, to the point where the public knows you and knows what to expect from you, you are positioning yourself effectively for success. The challenge, though, which has always existed but which is heightened in a social media environment, is that the story has to be absolutely true and the promise has to mean what it says. And when something happens to mess up the narrative, you decide to change the ending, or you can’t keep a promise, you have to communicate about it – a lot – and even be open to inviting the public in to co-create the reality of the brand with you.

This, I think, is the new reality of successfully integrated branding and social media: It’s a world where you do take the time to craft an image, but you ground that image in the facts on the ground, and where the interplay and feedback between the two is frequent, fast and furious as marketing needs and reality both shift continually. There is no longer a monolithic image, but rather a dynamic reality that is constantly in play. It’s a world, in short, where Google – which exemplifies these qualities - is consistently a top brand for a reason.

In the end, with a great brand like that, you can’t really tell where the image ends and the truth begins—and you don’t even want to.