Why Public Affairs Needs A "Brand Hijack" (Toward A Truly User-Driven Engagement Strategy)

Branding has evolved from an advertising-driven discipline to one that is led by social media. This is a scenario in which the user dictates the nature of the brand rather than the brand dictating an image to the user.

The idea that people would be "talking back" to, co-creating, and even overriding Big Brands was unheard of in the age of "Mad Men," but we are seeing this scenario come to pass.

The trend began with a move from solely externally focused branding to externally and internally focused communication in which the brand was said to have "values" that translated to all stakeholders. It is continuing as message senders recognize they must have more than the public's attention in order to be successful.

It's about having a pool of information or content that the user reaches into, pulls something out of, negotiates with in their mind, and returns in the form of an opinion, a creative piece of content, a mashup - a.k.a. "curation."

(A perfect example: The viral Saturday Night Live sendup of Healthcare.gov on October 26, 2013.)

In the future public engagement is going to mean a fundamental change in the nature of public engagement activities. This post describes what those are, in the form of a Q&A I posted to Quora.

The bottom line is, if public engagement is your goal, then you are in effect selling a message.

To sell that message effectively, you must be completely focused on the user - what they want to hear, how they want to hear it, and what methods make the transmission of information credible.

As the public grows more and more comfortable talking to each other and talking back, the traditional "shove a message down their throat with a press release" is going to be worse than irrelevant. While government will always need to be concerned with providing validated information, its job is not to decide what information the public "should" want to hear but rather to give them the information they demand.

Consequently, the job of the outreach specialist is to find interested parties where they congregate, offer consumable information there, and participate in the conversation that ensues.

The definition of success, in this environment, is a robust conversation - one in which disagreement is not only tolerated but celebrated - one in which all are invited to participate.

Here is the Q&A.

Who originally came up with things like 'brand values', 'missions', 'visions' and models like the 'brand pyramid'? I'm interested in the history of brand strategy. I've read lots of books on brand strategy, and none of them talk about where these ways of doing things came from. Did they come from *someone*? From P&G? Or elsewhere? -  From the Brand Strategy topic page, Quora

(originally posted by me to Quora.com)

  • Concepts tying the brand to a personality, or a set of values or a kind of mission, did not go mainstream until the late 2000s and probably coincide with the popularization of Facebook. 
  • It was only then that - due to social media - the wall between the personal and the professional crumbled to the point that one had to espouse certain personal values in order for those to be taken seriously as part of one's external image.
  • As far as models, they became popular around the mid-2000s as the term "branding" gained currency and everyone wanted to claim a piece of the pie with their own 'methodology'. This especially true around brand equity models.
  • This is my perspective as someone who has worked in branding since 2000. I was hired as VP & Editorial Director for the Brand Futures Group that year; it's a small trendspotting think-tank that was part of Young & Rubicam. (Later they were renamed The Intelligence Factory). 
  • The focus back then was strictly on branding as an offshoot of advertising. That was it: Ads came first, ads built brands, brands added value, and we predicted the trends that would make ads meaningful.
  • When we did research on branding we focused on consumer behavior - not on the relationship between the organization and the employee. It would have been unheard of to call that "branding."
  • In 2001 I was hired by a small company in Washington, DC called The Brand Consultancy which focused on something called "internal branding." This is where you get the whole language of vision, mission, brand values, and so on. 
  • This was completely fascinating to me as a native sociologist and latent organizational development specialist. In the year that I spent working for Y&R I thought that branding was about predicting social behavior. I wrote things like "one day we'll show allegiance to our favorite brands with tattoos" and "we'll be seeing the emergence of single-on-purpose women as a target audience". 
  • But TBC did something completely different. They talked about the brand on the inside, with "Brand Bibles" and training books and concepts like "operationalizing the brand." 
  • The company actually represented a merger between two smaller consultancies, and I had the opportunity to learn directly from the principals regarding how they coached, poked and prodded CEOs into branding not the products but the workforce.
  • As I recall the business was divided between advertising-type services (e.g. logo); brand-type services (e.g. assessment; strategy); and hybrids (e.g. a well designed Brand Bible).
Key Concepts

It was also around this time that I learned about concepts like brand transparency and corporate social responsibility. It became clear to me that every company would have to embrace these as part of their strategic communication plans.

I also led an early social network on Yahoo! Groups where we discussed these topics internationally; wrote articles for a website called Page on AllAboutBranding; and continued researching and writing even after taking a job with the Federal government. 

Brand Values Over The Years
  • The Federal position I received in 2003 was with the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency as a writer-editor in Internal Communications. While there, I obtained a graduate certificate in Organization Development and set about creating "advertorials" aimed at internal audiences to "brand" the agency to them. I also became involved in best practices groups that espoused early forms of what was soon to go mainstream - "employee first" brand thinking. I even produced an Amazon.com internal rating system for newsletter articles to promote transparency and engagement, but it was rapidly shot down a few years ahead of its time.
  • Around 2005 I was hired to work in the Department of Homeland Security's Customs and Border Protection, but neither there nor in my first federal job were the words "internal branding" ever uttered. They literally thought of the brand as the name and logo - nothing else. I even did a mission integration project - but it was never called "internal branding."
  • Around 2009 "employer branding" became important as a tool for recruitment and to that end "internal branding" involved a discussion of mission, vision and values.
  • Also around this time social media began to go really mainstream, although initial use was as a means to "spam" the community with one-way messaging.
  • By 2012 things had definitively shifted. I worked for USAID, and it became incredibly important to senior leadership that employees believe in the brand just as much as external parties did. While there, I personally helped lead a mission and values initiative aimed at rediscovering who we were - and in the process raising productivity and morale.
  • Similarly, in my current position at The National Archives, that concept of embodying a set of values is critical. We have an entire internal social network where discussions frequently take place about living up to our mission and core values.
Looking Ahead

In the future I think things are going to go even further, as people demand to look behind the curtain at the brand and mistrust the "official word" in all its forms.

It's really about fostering a conversation between social media and branding, understanding that you cannot be fully authentic all the time nor would you want to be projecting an artificial image.

Three basic changes will go mainstream:
  1. People will want to hear from ordinary members of the organization - NOT "flacks," e.g. public relations representatives. This "brand authenticity" will be demanded. Those who do not comply will be mercilessly made fun of, discredited or ignored. Eventually, for the most part, ordinary staff will be encouraged to speak freely about the company rather than  having the company speak for them.
  2. Disagreements by staff that are expressed in public will not be cause for alarm. It will be acknowledged that having your own ideas is a sign of credibility and will actually make the organization more engaging.
  3. Social media strategy will assume prime importance to brand strategy. It will consist of finding where the conversation is taking place, responding to the questions that users have, and accepting their criticism respectfully. This is the complete opposite of "projecting" a false brand image which has been the traditional cornerstone of branding and is rapidly falling away.
Landmark Publications Around Y2K
  • The Cluetrain Manifesto - which told me it would not be long before people started to talk back to the image makers.
  • "Are The Strategic Stars Aligned For Your Brand?" in Harvard Business Review, by Majken and Schultz - I learned that branding is a holistic exercise connecting internal and external audiences.
  • "The Brand Called You" in Fast Company, by Tom Peters - I learned that you personally would become the product - just as much as the product you sell - and how to optimize my "personal brand" accordingly. 
  • An article I got to later on was Gallup's "The Fifth P" or how people are the un-discussed essential factor in marketing.
* All opinions my own.