Socially-mediated branding: Revangelism?

I have been talking about socially-mediated branding without having really offered a description of what I mean by it. In follow up to yesterday’s post on consumers and their identification with brands, I want to just unpack this idea a bit further.

I consider socially-mediated branding the smart business response to the disruptive effects of social media. It is a call to businesses not to reclaim control over their brand identity across social media as powerful new channels, but rather a suggestion that marketing, PR, advertising and other brand-related efforts shift their frame of perspective when considering the social media space. Namely, that brands see themselves from the consumer’s perspective. And try to find there what interests the consumer about the brand.

I suggested yesterday that brands might think not in terms of brand or consumer identity, but in terms of how we identify with each other (brands and consumers). Brands ought to start from what the brand means to the consumer, and let that inform what the consumer means to the brand. Not the other way around.

I made it sound simple. Consumers identify with some aspect of a brand, and that’s the basis from which they might express their tastes and interests online. Faceted branding and conversational strategies with multiple story lines would then factor into brand strategies as a smart and pro-active integration of social media into brand messaging. Different strokes for different folks.

And in examining the brand’s sociability, a business might also be pro-active by listening and learning from how its audience picks up the brand in talk amongst friends and peers. This approach is qualitative, subjective, and contingent on the brand’s own sensitivities and perceptiveness, not to simple mentions and responses but of what interests consumers. Social media give away an incredible amount of information. But the real meaning of what all that information offers a brand can only be read by humans and made actionable by flexible organizations.

The fact that people talk to each other using social media, and that they offer up what matters to them in the process, represents a massive improvement in what any organization can know about itself. Not just in how much of its own brand image is seen, but in how its brand message has conversational value. Brand sociability, in short.

But not all consumers identify directly with a brand. Take, for example, Disney versus, say, a tire company. Well clearly Disney’s got it pretty good insofar as sociability is concerned. It’s an experience brand. It’s entertaining, and it’s fun — and it’s for the whole family. The tire company, on the other hand, is woefully disadvantaged by comparison. I don’t identify with the tires on my car any more than I suspect you do — unless you have a penchant for the weekend tractor pull competition or an expensive fantasy involving F1 track racing and the flutter of the checkered flag.

If one of us were at a tire company in social media branding, and spotted this post, it would be ridiculous if we ran upstairs and proclaimed: “let’s sponsor this blog!” Blogger relations would be driving blind if they took this post and drew the conclusion that I was a tire blogger. That I have mentioned tires doesn’t mean I have a tire relationship, nor even a passing interest in tires.

But I did recently have an experience with a tire company. Traveling to hog island for an all day feast of freshly-farmed oysters, our crew sustained a high-speed flat. After what seemed like eons of tense this-is-not-my-family roadside pleas and ultimatums delivered to a hapless rental agency customer service agent, I proffered the alternative to immediate rental car replacement. Which was to drive on the donut to a tire shop and just have the tire replaced instead of the car.

Which went over so swimmingly that we were hardly late to our destination, relaxed, and dare I say, soon happy as clams. I still don’t have a relationship with a tire company but I have had a memorable experience with a flat tire. Now as it turned out, the imminent violence manifest in our sudden appearance at Big O tires warranted a canny move on the part of the manager in charge that morning. To wit, we were bumped to the front of the line, hoisted and affixed while no less than one loyal local was left longer to wait.

And we found the place using an iPhone. There was no app for that, but google maps, but if it hadn’t been for that we might have spent even more time placing desperate customer service calls, and coming ever and more speedily closer to the brink of family outing meltdown.

So if you or I were at Big O tire company in the social media marketing department of one, reading this post might suggest a different take-away. Flat tire is the experience — not tire, tire treads, or tire technology. We might run upstairs and a across the floor to the marketing department and proclaim: “Flat tires! That’s the consumer experience related to online! To hell with blogger relations (wait, that’s me), let’s ask to use this guy’s story and see if we can find more. People tell stories about flats, not tires!”

We might then bank around the corner and ask for a moment with the IT group. “Big O tire locations: Do we have an app for that?” Hey, ho, no we don’t! And perhaps zip up to the C suite and declare: “Here’s this guy who had a flat tire, the rental car agency reps dropped the ball, and we solved their problem. I’m thinking, why doesn’t the rental car agency realize how much it could save if it offered to cover tire replacements with us. Instead of shipping out a tow truck, why not we and the rental car agency roll out a new tire program: share the cost and market together. Rental car customer service reps will have locations and numbers of Big O tire shops, and offer to help get the customer first in line in case of emergency flats?”

That would be organizational learning, of the kind that we often mean when talking about social business design. Learning from the consumer’s experience and stories, rethinking the experience and finding inspiration. And we could take this further, for there are many other consumer tales out there, including the ones about the tractor pull and the checkered flag.

And I haven’t even unpacked some of the other ways in which consumers relate and identify, not with the brand directly perhaps but with what its product means. The crushing power of the monster tire, or high performance precision of the Formula 1 racing treads. The teamwork of the pit stop, the rumble of a lowrider, the car modifications of a Pimp My Car, the green branding of recycling retired tires. All of which are much more social than the personal tale told here.

So socially-mediated branding capitalizes on the re-tale-ability of retail stories originating in the marketplace, amongst consumers whose experiences and interests are authentic and authentically told. I’m tempted to call this “revangelism.” Or brand evangelism retold.

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