Is Social Media a New Way to Build a Brand?

It’s practically a given truth that to build a brand that resonates with Millennials you must be active in social media. Whether this is true or simply a fad is something brand marketers are now wrestling with.

Many companies are still deciding whether to redirect marketing spending, and more fundamentally, whether it offers a new platform for brand differentiation.

There are three tests for determining whether a new idea is a fad (something people talk about) or a real change (something people actually do).

1. What is driving it? Real trends are more likely to be supported by underlying changes in demographics, values, lifestyle or technology, not just pop culture, fashion or media

2. How accessible is to the mainstream? How much of a change in habits is required?  How high are the barriers or costs in time and money?

3. How broadly based is it? Is it expressed across more than just a few categories or groups?

By these standards, social media is a fundamental change in how brands connect with customers. The underlying drivers are solid. Millennials, the first wave of adopters, represented a significant shift in demographics and values.  Accessibility requirements were met via rapid broadband penetration and low prices or even ‘free’ access. And the rapid spread from young adults to near ubiquity across geographies, generations and cultures suggest it has utility beyond a niche.

A new Razorfish Outlook report reveals that social media represents just 4% of their client’s average media spend (although they acknowledge this may underrepresent the investment since much of the cost is in labor).  A joint study by Facebook and Nielsen that covered over 800,000 users, 70 advertisers and 125 campaigns concluded that Facebook advertising provides measurable lift in such key brand measures as Ad Recall, Brand Awareness, and Purchase Intent.Homepage ads increased awareness of the product or brand by 4% on average, but exposure to both homepage ads and organic ads increased awareness by a delta of 13% versus the control group.” With results like this, you would expect many brands to be rushing to take advantage of ‘earned media’ impressions to be gained through social media.

Whether marketers should be spending more is the question. The answer depends on whether you see social media as just another tactic or as a new strategic brand building tool.

The methods of brand building have always been dynamic.  Regis McKenna, an early pioneer in high tech marketing, writes “the discipline of marketing — if one can call it a discipline — change with new generations and eras of technology.”

We have come a long way from the days of Unique Selling Propositions and product performance-based brand strategies. In the 80’s, user lifestyle and brand personality became a recognized way to create differentiation for brands that offered no inherent product-based differences, such as apparel, luxury goods, soft drinks, cosmetics. Then companies like Apple, Dell, and Nike showed how a distinctive customer experience based on better design, user experience and customer service could also offer powerful ways to build a strong, differentiated brand.

As each new innovation was explored, brands learned how to borrow from these new ‘toolkits’ to strengthen their own position, even if the basis of their differentiation (product, lifestyle, etc.) remained the same. Social media may in fact represent the latest in the evolutionary line of brand building approaches.

The goal is still the same – a differentiated, strong brand. Social media offers a new toolkit for reaching that goal. The question facing many brands now is whether to adopt that toolkit. Social media has proven to be an especially powerful way to reach Gen Y due to their greater comfort with technology and passion for customized experiences. But is it the best way? Who benefits most? And when is it most appropriate?

The first step to answering these questions is to first define what we mean by ‘social media’.  David Teicher, Social Media Manager & Digital Strategist at McCann-Erickson, has suggested the term ‘social media‘ is not all that useful (“There’s no such thing as Social Media”). He proposes “we stop using the term social media (though, we can still discuss social networks, platforms, or vehicles), and start referring to living, breathing, evolving dynamic media, because that’s what it is.” To Teicher, it is this dynamic aspect that makes social media so powerful:

“…every time I retweet an article or show a friend a funny video, or post a product review or campaign analysis on my blog, I’m not just restating existing content – I am reconstructing it, which is so much more impactful than simple reiteration. Furthering its spread, yes, but irrevocably altering it in the process, and thus making it my own.  And when I, or more importantly, when consumers can claim partial ownership of content – such materials become more influential over behaviors, both social and commercial. …The key is to provide users, consumers, with inherently moldable content, subject matter that can exist on its own – that has innate appeal – yet is receptive to reshaping and reinterpretation, along with the tools to do so, so that consumers can take branded content and create something personally meaningful from it.”

Dynamism is precisely what makes ‘social media’ a challenge for brand marketers. Strategists are accustomed to thinking in terms of key messages and themes, not content that can be adapted and molded. How can social media be considered a brand building tool, when you literally have no control over what is being said?

Social media is more about the time and place (context) and favorability (sentiment) of the message than than the content.  For brand marketers, this represents a fundamental challenge — how to build a brand by putting the focus on affinity as a means rather than an end. This is particularly challenging as ‘affinity’ is not even defined necessarily in terms of the brand as it is in CRM (think Harley clubs), but instead in terms of what the consumer wants to talk about. The focus is on ‘resonance’ not on the underpinnings of image, benefits or attributes.

This approach to brand building is not for the faint of heart. It requires a dedication to understanding users and potential users in a deep way. It means turning the focus away from the brand and onto customers and potential customers, giving them opportunities to take brand content and make it their own. As Teicher puts it, “consumers are producers too.”

“People don’t want to create content from scratch. We live in the heart of remix culture. Intrinsically valuable materials need to be provided to consumers, accompanied by both the means to impart a personal, individualized meaning – the added value, be it emotional, contextual, cultural, or otherwise – and the tools to easily share their product.”

The brands that seem to be experiencing the most success with this approach  put the tools for self-expression into the hands of their customers, rather than relying on viral videos or gimmicks. Here is a list of the top 10 brands on Facebook, according to number of fans, excluding Facebook itself which is the leader with over 9 million fans.

#2 Starbucks 7,266,488 Fans

#3 Coca-Cola 5,567,046 Fans

#4 YouTube 5,114,322 Fans

#5 Red Bull 3,727,372 Fans

#6 Disney 3,488,088 Fans

#7 Victoria’s Secret 3,470,724 Fans

#8 Converse 2,749,691 Fans

#9 McDonald’s 2,270,109 Fans

#10 H&M 2,062,377 Fans

#11 MTV 1,924,744 Fans

A visit to each of these pages reveals that each of these brands uses social media to give their customers a voice. The conversation is less about the brand than about shared interests or passion points. None of these brands is using social media as its only brand building strategy, but social media is providing an extra dimension of differentiation, above and beyond what they are able to do with a product, lifestyle or user experience approach alone.

My conclusion is that dynamic social media may in fact represent a new way to build a brand, but will not replace other methods as the primary means of differentiation for some time.

Instead it offers an additional layer of differentiation, particularly for brands that have already set themselves apart via a more classic brand strategy approach, it is a potent new tool and one that should not be ignored, particularly if the answer is ‘yes’ to any of these three questions:

1. Does your brand target Millennials?

2. Does your brand share significant passions with its target that are not directly related to the brand’s key performance characteristics or image such as a cause or environmental interest?

3. Does your brand connect with its customers primarily at the corporate rather than product level? (i.e., span multiple products or have an evolving product offering?)