Branding In The ‘No-Control’ Era

Data privacy or not, everyone including my driver thinks that by not being in social media we are irrelevant. Yet, even the self-proclaimed digital wizards do not really know what works there and what doesn’t. Technological changes are ever so rapid, and leading brands are finding that interactions with consumers are fundamentally being challenged in the new digital disruptive era. The “morphosis” in branding is imminent if not already initiated.

With the data privacy issue looming large, WhatsApp, Twitter and LinkedIn have been quick to strengthen the confidence of their users. Facebook has the additional hassle of convincing the regulators and policymakers that they are doing everything to adhere to privacy standards. Indian companies who will face a serious challenge on this front will always be slow to wake up. While such issues will affect the brand, the branding executives need not worry too much on these as much as the CIO should.

What’s more critical for the branding folks is the question of ROI. Why are some videos go viral and become big hits – like the recent song clip of a Malayalam actress that became the second biggest hit in one day or the Tamil “kolaveri” song?

The ages-old adage of “Half-the-advertising-money-is-wasted-but-who-knows - which-half” still holds water. Why do some individuals get a huge fan following, not of the paid variety? How come some brands use paid advertising to get noticed while others succeed without any spends? Welcome to the unknown era.

It is less about advertising and more about basic marketing today – contrary to what digital specialists make us believe. Digital marketing is not just about developing technology either. What is critical is customer data, for which technology is an enabler.

Look at it this way: Consumers want help with their lives, and they are in control in the digital era. The question becomes “how do you organise yourselves to help them?” Integrating ourselves in our customers’ lives is less about advertising to them and more about adding value to the experiences that they desire and choose.

It’s a constant peeling away of layers and getting more comfortable with losing control of comfort zones. Today no brand manager can claim they are in control of the “brand”.

Marketing is fairly simple; finding the insight is the hard part. Once you figure that out, things will begin to fall in place. The idea is of talking with – and not at – consumers. You need to have something people can interact with; and solve an issue they might have.

The digital revolution is certainly changing the way brands communicate their message to consumers. Recent studies indicate that 79 per cent of Twitter usage is on mobile devices while 38 per cent of search results for the world’s top 20 brands are linked to user generated content. About 42 per cent of bloggers post opinions on products and brands. In this scenario, brands must understand that the conversation is absolutely happening in a number of different dimensions and areas. Observing and listening into these conversations is key to joining the group with value addition. You don’t have to be at the party anymore to be at the party. But you need to stop going after audiences; instead, pursue highly targeted groups of individuals.

There are several brands that have successfully used these principles to command powerful brand status in the new age. Starbucks, for instance, is using its brand as the interface for content distribution. They are putting communities out there for activism, entrepreneurialism, influencers of good music, and so on. The number one brand on

Facebook – even above Facebook, for several years now – Starbucks uses that channel for distribution of information to add value to conversations the brand is having with its customers. Samsung and Coca-Cola are learning this game fast and are becoming top contenders in other rankings.

Richard Branson’s Virgin is another global brand that transformed itself into a distribution-facing brand. It is now a space to build and incubate ideas. Branson had launched a programme with the intent of inspiring others to make contributions that benefit the world. Individuals can pitch their entrepreneurial ideas on video and become part of the Pitch TV show on Virgin Airlines.

The fact is that if we don’t learn from our consumers, our brand is irrelevant in the digital space. The new age is fundamentally different in ways that are not always advantageous to large brands. The open environment of digital platforms, for example, increases the availability of information but erodes the advantages of big-bucks brands. Here, for a change, you don’t own the shelves anymore. The social revolution also requires the coordination of marketing, sales and consumer relation functions that traditionally have never been in sync.

Even the self-styled experts seem unanimous in implying they don’t know many things when they say: “It is important to test and learn.” Delivering objectives is more important than delivering perfect metrics. The metrics will be needed but the opportunities are not always effectively leveraged. Brands will have to evoke product and people stories.

Transforming customers into fans and brand advocates is critical to a brand’s success in social media. Here are some pointers from deep experience of dealing with consumers who are in control:

Clarify the rules of engagement. Which comments require a reply? Which should be ignored? What is the basic “etiquette” when posting a response?

Who should be engaged? Which target consumers or topics are most important to you (personal or your brand)?

Specify chain of command. Who is in charge of the effort? Who is responsible for implementation? A best practice is to create a flowchart that lists front-line responders along with back-ups.

Structure should drive the response tone. Corporate blogs are often criticised for being bland and uninteresting. Often this stems from too much bureaucracy. By the time your response is posted, it’s been overly sanitised.

A best practice is to have no more than two layers of approval and a turnaround time under a working day.

Establish transparency. The most successful corporate forays in social media are those that operate at the highest levels of transparency, whether in informing consumers about product launches or publicly admitting mistakes.

Remember Nestle Maggi?

Years ago I used to advocate along with Patty Seybold (of fame) that it is imperative for businesses to make it easy for their customers to do business with them.

Yet, even today, very few companies have mastered this. Who knows, what they couldn’t do on the ease of doing business, Indian companies might just surprise the world by mastering branding in the “no-control” era.

(The author spearheads execution and innovation for clients @CustomerLab)

M Muneer