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Is The Customer The Message? AKA The Social Democratization Of Brand

0511_howtweetitis_May2011_logosIn today’s world economy, it is becoming necessary—even crucial— that businesses and brands have a fulsome and strategic plan on how they interact with their customer base and clientele. Gone are the days of top-down execution plans with brands controlling the messaging. More and more, people around the world now assume they have visible, social access to businesses and brands from which they can develop an ongoing, interactive personal dialogue with the makers of the products with which they connect. Democratized interaction is an expectation

In the fall of 2010, The Gap unveiled their new logo, to much derision and negative criticism from the Facebook and Twitter community. Even asking social network users for logo design ideas through crowdsourcing backfired—designers don’t want to work for a major corporation for free—and The Gap quickly reverted back to their original logo. It was a case study showcasing how things were changing rapidly for businesses in the social media age.

In January 2011, Starbucks took cues from the very public drubbing The Gap received, and seemed more prepared than The Gap was at managing the social media customer review tsunami. You can’t please everyone, and more often than not, people initially resist change. Anticipating positive and negative feedback, Starbucks provided more reasoning for the change up front, with contextual visuals showcasing the brand’s evolution over the years, and with accompanying homey YouTube interview clips with Chairman and CEO, Howard Schultz, etc. Reviews were mixed, but Starbucks held their ground. There were many who liked the change, but I suspect it was because customers were kept better informed on why the change was happening in the first place. I joked to a friend at the time that Starbucks had removed the first circle ring with their name on it to reduce the impact of millions of people seeing empty coffee cups strewn along the streets of our world’s great cities. I also jokingly predicted the company would subsequently remove the next circle ring that currently illustrates a mermaid’s tail, once all sea life on the planet has been consumed and/or have become extinct. I’m such a nihilistic joker sometimes.

According to a 2010 study of 1,500 consumers by Chadwick Martin Bailey and iModerate Research Technologies, 60% of Facebook fans and 79% of Twitter followers of a brand are more likely to recommend the brand’s product to a friend. 51% of Facebook fans and 67% of Twitter followers are apt to purchase the brands they follow or “fan.”

Sean Moffitt and Mike Dover have written a wonderful new book for businesses looking to fully understand and capitalize within this new landscape of pull not push marketing, called WIKIBRANDS Reinventing Your Company In A Customer-Driven Marketplace (McGraw Hill Books, 2011). It’s a comprehensive how-to for companies and individuals who run businesses to work with the new social tools and technological platforms that are available today, and to effectively recognize and nurture their relationships with their customer base.

Moffitt and Dover write that the new social media environment “has become a bit like the Wild West.”

“Collaboration with brands is a core trait of the Net Generation,” they write. It’s true. The landscape has changed, and it is the interactive customer experience shared visibly to a global audience that is going to shape or reshape a brand’s evolution.

Social media is requiring businesses to reform their business strategies. Nevertheless, while these social tools may now be available and ubiquitous, one still has to have a great idea. As well, being a good communicator is learned behaviour. There are those who excel at the job, and those who do poorly. Understanding how to nurture an ongoing dialogue is a skill developed over time.

Social media business plans must be implemented at a strategic level. Giving it to the intern is not going to cut it in today’s marketplace.

Michael Thorner tweets at @michaelthorner

This is an expanded version of a column originally published in IN Toronto Magazine, May 2011 issue.