Customer service, social media, and branding--why brand makers should never, never give up trying

In an article for Brandweek, blogger Shel Holtz talks about the proliferation of “social media” (online participatory sites), including social networking sites and blogs. He cites a study showing that “22% of U.S. consumers are using social networking sites, a 5% increase in just one year.” What’s more, “19% use blogs, a 13% spike. And use of these channels has doubled among people over 55.”

What this means, says Holtz, is that consumers are more often “experiencing your brand in places where you have no control. What’s more, they’re making purchase decisions based on those experiences.” It’s true: people are going online to learn about brands from bloggers, people who leave testimonials on e-commerce websites, friends, and family. Interestingly, they are NOT learning much about brands from company-sponsored websites. So the situation, for brands, is pretty dire: let’s not even talk about co-creation! We’re approaching a situation of customer-creation.

Holtz pairs this with the fact that bloggers tend to write about poor experiences with customer service/technical support, and consumers tend to read about those experiences online. “Every time someone reads a blog post about a tech support nightmare, he has a brand experience. Every time a prospective customer hears someone tell a customer-service horror story, she has a brand experience.”

For Holtz, this leads to the argument that “customer service and tech support are reporting to the wrong box on the organization chart. These functions are the front line of public relations.”

He couldn’t be more accurate. In an era where social media rules, frontline consumer-facing functions are absolutely critical to creating a positive brand experience.

Holtz offers three ways to ensure a positive customer service/tech support experience:

  • Invest in staffing and training for these company representatives (of course!)
  • Have customer service/tech support actively look for people having trouble on social networks (I’m not sure I buy into that one…it seems like a lot of trouble to go through and then you can’t even necessarily reach the complainer)
  • Make every company employee “a potential customer service or tech support rep.” What he means by this is that employees (as in #2 above) should be online looking for ways to be the face of the organization. (I’m not sure I buy into that one either…imagine a company with thousands and thousands of employees, all wasting their time looking online for people who are having bad brand experiences with the company.)

He makes a good overall point, though: that “When any employee can reach out to a customer and solve their problem, the buzz is even better and the brand grows even stronger.”

I think the key takeaway here is that companies are in a fundamental, seismic shift of massive proportions going on and they don’t even realize it. Consumers are slowly but surely taking away control of the brand from the brand maker and putting it into their own hands. And that is a problem because branding, as I have stated repeatedly, is a matter of the brand maker creating a vision, or position for the brand and then reinforcing that vision in every way possible. The implication of Holtz’s argument, which has also been echoed elsewhere in talk about “curator culture” and other archetypes for consumer empowerment, is that brand makers are losing the ability to create brands in the first place. And that is a scary thing.

What should brand makers do? Should they just yield all control of the brand to consumers? Or should they strive to create an even tighter brand experience, a net if you will that will reach over and drape consumers in its web of positive customer brand experiences? If you ask me, I believe that they should make the effort. This means, as Holtz suggests, investing in training frontline customer service and tech support staff, of course. But it also means more than that. It means creating a special cadre of employees whose entire job is to represent the company online. That means infiltrating social networks (honestly, authentically, as company representatives, but infiltrating nonetheless) and finding ways to generate positive buzz about the organization. It means responding to blog posts; countering negative testimonials; and generally doing everything humanly possible to create a sense of consistency around the brand.

In today’s climate, the job of building a brand is undoubtedly harder than it has ever been before. Marketers, however, have no right to throw up their hands in despair and say “I can’t do it.” Rather, they must redouble their efforts to create positive, consistent brand experiences, both online and offline, through advertising and marketing promotions and creating physical, tangible brand experiences that are memorable in the right way. It means hiring the right people at every level of the organization to create a consistent, positive brand culture that delivers on the values the organization ascribes to in every interaction with the public and with other employees. It means beefing up the website, because even if people don’t view it as the ultimate authority on the brand, it still carries a great deal of weight. It means, in short, making sure that wherever people encounter the brand, they are encountering the right set of experiences, tightly knit, heavily controlled, yet personally liberating, symbolic, and meaningful. That is true brand mastery and that is an art that will never, never go away.

Sneak preview: new John Wiley book on branding

In a week, I will be interviewed for a book on aligning the internal and the external brand. The book, which is as yet untitled, is being published by John Wiley. The author of the book is Dr. Claudia Fisher, founder, Lemontree Brand Strategy. With Claudia's permission, reprinted below is the text of the interview and my early written responses to the questions.

1. Aligning internal and external brand activities is supposedly common sense. However, if one observes brand reality out there, this does not appear to be so.

  • Do you think this is a topic of importance/ relevance/ interest? Yes, it is critical. If the internal and the external brand are not aligned the result is a fragmented brand and that is not sustainable in the marketplace.
  • Why do you think alignment is so challenging? Because organizational leaders often do not receive upward feedback, they do not understand that employees are every bit as much stakeholders as external customers. They don’t understand that employees read the newspaper and go to the company’s website the same way that external customers do. They take for granted that employees are loyal to the company (because they are getting paid) and don’t try to earn that loyalty. Also marketing communications is siloed from the other parts of the organization that need to work with it to communicate the brand internally—human resources and the training function.
  • What do you think are key sources for misalignment? Leaders who communicate upward or outward only instead of downward and internally. Also failure to create cross-functional communication teams around the brand. Also failure to pay attention to building a unified culture around the brand.

2. More and more brand experts believe in co-creation of brands.

  • How would you define co-creation? Who are the key parties involved? Co-creation is when the customer has a voice in defining the brand, usually through the Internet – giving a testimonial on an e-commerce site, or authoring a blog, or even just e-mailing friends and family. However, co-creation can also be when the employees of the organization have a voice in creating the brand together with the marketing/communications function and/or the agency.
  • Who should be the key parties involved? The CEO of the brand on the one side, the marketing/communications department and the advertising/marketing agency in the middle, the employees of the organization as another part, and the customer on the other side.
  • What is the impact on brand management? Ability to control? More and more, customers and employees are defining what the brand is and does, but the brand manager still retains a great deal of control over the brand’s image. The brand manager can create the desired image and also engineer conversations via experiential marketing and Internet polling with consumers that generate the desired image. For example, Panasonic parks a truck in various retailer’s parking lots that showcases its electronic products, and invites customers to experience the Panasonic brand. Those experiences create impressions and conversations.
  • What are the risks of not embracing co-creation as a reality? The risk is that you create a disconnect in the marketplace between your positioning, or how you want your brand to be perceived, and your image, or how your brand actually is perceived. That disconnect can destroy your brand. It is especially dangerous when companies do not realize that their employees are effectively co-creating the brand every day, and that the message employees send in their interactions with customers may be different than the official party line.
  • Does co-creation render the issue of internal/ external alignment meaningless? It makes it more complicated. We are not living in a command and control environment anymore. People today are more independent of authority than they have ever been. They, especially employees, need to be inspired to rally around the brand, to make it a cause and to look at it the same way that the official leadership does. At the same time, leaders need to get closer to employees and customers and find out where their affinities to the brand lie, and mirror that in brand communication. For example, the Wii videogame is very popular among seniors in the United States , even though the brand is marketed to young people. Seniors have co-opted it. The makers of Wii therefore need to address seniors in their official brand communication, even if they create a subbrand to do it.

3. In the past, branding was very communication-led.

  • Do you think this will change in the future? Why or why not? How? This will not change at all.. All branding is created continually through a form of communication and interaction with consumers, whether it is advertising or marketing promotions or word of mouth.
  • Where do you see the key opportunities for brands going forward? The brands that will succeed in the future will take one of two tracks. One possibility is to be very close to the customer by taking a scientific approach, polling and surveying statistically and continually to find out what the consumer wants and then to meet that. Another possibility is to be highly visionary, and create demand through some sort of unique insight into the world and where it is going. Or there can be some combination of the two. In the U.S., Oprah Winfrey is an example of a highly visionary brand, that takes a stand on a variety of issues important to her, but that incorporates constant feedback from television viewers and Internet readers.

4. Do you think the role of brands in general is changing? If so, how and why?

  • Do you think that brands today are more important or less important than in the past? Why? Both -- brands are more important and less important. They are more important because there is truly an endless proliferation of choices in the marketplace and they provide a shortcut to making a decision about what to buy. They are also more important than in the past because with the Internet and e-commerce, we are living in more of a consumer culture than ever before and membership with a brand provides status in that culture. They are less important also because there is such a proliferation of equivalent choices that the distinction can tend to become meaningless, a consumer may choose randomly or based on price alone.
  • Who do they/should they primarily appeal to? Brands should make their appeal to people who are willing participants in consumer culture, not to people who have rejected brands and branding, of which there seem to be a substantial number. It does not pay to go after everyone.
  • Who should “own”/ be responsible for the brand internally? The CEO or leader of the organization must own the brand, there is no other way to champion it. The marketing/communications department simply does not have as much impact as the organization’s leader—he or she sets the tone for everyone else in the organization.. At the same time, the leader must invest the employees themselves with ownership over the brand so that they carry it forward as if it were their own.
  • What is the role of “authenticity”? Is it a fad or more permanent? In my view authenticity is critical and permanent. People must believe that the story you are telling is true on some level. Look at the U.S. brand Harley-Davidson. That brand, which has to do with personal freedom, has traditionally been identified with men and their motorcycles but is now branching out to appeal to women. And the appeal stays true, despite the branching out, because the brand has that cachet of sticking to its guns and promoting freedom.

5. Do you think consumers are changing? If so, how?

I think the Internet fundamentally changed everything when it comes to being a consumer. For one thing, consumers are more price-sensitive than they have been in the past—they can look online for just about anything and get it from the cheapest vendor possible. From that perspective, the role of branding is diminished. However, at the same time, consumers recognize that they need to buy from trustworthy sources so that they don’t just send their money out into the vapor and never receive product. So from that point of view, the role of branding is dramatically increased. Another impact of the Internet, as has been stated repeatedly by others, is that consumers are talking back to brands—they are more willing to get out there and share experiences with product online. This makes them more skeptical and empowered about what brands are claiming to provide. At the same time, it also makes them more open to brands because they are always looking for the next new thing—giving innovative brands a chance to win their loyalty.

6. Do you think that the role of employees vis-à-vis brands is changing? If so, how?

It’s changing in a couple of ways. First, employees are learning from their external experiences with the Internet that they should talk back to brands, including the brands they work for. So their expectation is to have more of a say in the brand. This can hurt the ability of leadership to drive a certain brand culture throughout the organization, because employees see themselves as equally suited to say whether a particular course of action is appropriate. At the same time, employees are more brand-identified than ever before, and they WANT to be part of a great brand. So I think they are more willing to participate in creating a great brand, and are more able to see themselves as stewards of the brand in their interactions with customers.

7. Do you think that the way we do business is changing? Is there, for example, more focus on ethics or is this simply a reaction to the current political environment?

I think organizations are more conscious than ever of ethics, integrity, the environment, and so on. In the U.S., Bank of America is running ads demonstrating how its employees have contributed back to the communities in which they work, and saying in effect that you should bank with us because we are socially responsible. I don’t know whether that will have an impact on using the brand, but companies seem to think that it will.

8. How important do you think company values are versus the brand? How do the two concepts relate to each other? Is it practicable / necessary to have both concepts? Why or why not? Where does culture belong? Can culture be controlled by branding?

Company values are absolutely critical to branding. It is essential that companies have values, and that the values be the right ones. Generic or bland value statements have no meaning and can actually detract from the brand. Culture is critical to branding—you cannot have a sustainable brand unless you use the brand to drive the organization so that the norms, beliefs, customs, rules, and regulations, training, organizational structure, and all of that supports the business results that the brand is supposed to create. As Barlow and Stewart argue in Branding Customer Service, you must start with the experience that you want the customer to have and then work backward to create a culture that will enable those experiences.

9. How can a brand grow and still remain true to itself?

The goal of every brand should be to grow and serve everyone in the niche that it has identified, without losing the integrity of its message. It is very tempting for brands to try to be everything to everyone, and unfortunately success can lead them in that direction. But the most important thing is to say, this is my core customer and this is the experience I want to provide to that customer, and I will not stray from that. If the brand is itching to do more, it can create another brand to serve another group of customers. But it should not expand beyond the limits of what Sergo Zyman calls “brand immunity”—it should never do things that are contrary to its character in order to sell to more customers.

10. Which brands do you admire most and why? What can be learned from them?

What are the key success factors for brands today? Key challenges and obstacles?

The brands that I admire most are people-brands, generally, not organization-brands. Oprah Winfrey and Hillary Clinton come to mind. They are both examples of stubborn determination, in the face of constant obstacles, to be successful in the way that they uniquely define success. And they never look back or second-guess themselves or try to leap out of the categories that they have defined for themselves. They are disciplined and persistent, and yet they are flexible enough to listen to their constituents and incorporate that feedback into their message. And that is what I think every brand ought to be. The key challenge for brands today is to stay in tune with what’s going on with customers, but at the same time not to get thrown off course or off-message.. That is a delicate balance to strike.

11. Are there any other issues/challenges/concerns that come to mind in this context?

I the biggest issue for brands is how much they are willing to gamble on their concept in a world where consumers are fickle and where a good idea can be copied instantly. At the end of the day this requires a certain disciplined irreverence. By that I mean that companies should do their homework, figure out exactly who they are targeting, down to a detailed psychographic of their customer, and then let their imaginations run free. This involves a certain amount of risk but it is a disciplined kind of risk, and companies should be willing both to invest liberally in new ideas and to pull the plug on those ideas if they are not working. They should also be prepared to change course frequently—offer new products, services, enhancements, etc. to keep the brand fresh. The important thing is to stay true to the spirit of the brand and the customer for that brand. If you know your brand and you know your customer better than anyone, and you stay focused on aligning the brand experience for the customer all the time, you have a recipe for sustainable brand success. And that is why the employees of the brand organization are critical. They are the ones who reach out to customers on the frontlines and they are the ones who must tell you when it is time to correct your course of action. If you don’t have a good pipeline from the frontline employees to leadership, then you don’t know when things are going wrong and it takes much longer to adjust as needed.

Word of mouth marketing and "cheeseheads"

First, an item from Brandweek’s December 31 edition: word-of-mouth marketing is “projected to hit $1.3 billion this year, up almost 33% from $981 million in 2006,” and “spending is expected to triple by 2011.” This is due to “the explosion of communications on the Internet” and “the acceptance of WOM as a separate discipline beyond ads and public relations.”

This makes sense to me. In an era where the consumer is taking increasing control over marketing, it pays to spend money to facilitate WOM. What the article doesn’t explain, though, is what all this money is being spent on if word of mouth is mostly done for free, by consumers leaving feedback on e-commerce sites, social networking sites, and blogs. True, there is a mention of a company that “leverages relationships with artists in underground New York scenes to build buzz.” But that’s just an isolated case. I would like to know more about how companies are paying to generate WOM.

Speaking of WOM, Wisconsin is generating some buzz as it is trying to come up with a new brand besides “cheeseheads,” which is what they’re known for—dairy and specifically cheese. They seem to be committed to the project, to recognize the obstacles (stereotypes are tough to change; the tourism department “has used numerous slogans in advertising campaigns”; and Wisconsin has “cold winters, high unionization, mid-continental location and relatively high taxes”), and to have done a good job understanding the importance of positioning—finding “that single point of difference”--although the article on this subject doesn't say what that is. They also hired local talent to work on the campaign, thus increasing the chance that the campaign will show deep insight into the brand. (The CEO of Madison, Wisconsin-based branding firm Lindsay, Stone & Briggs is the one who wrote about the cold winters, unionization, location, and taxes in a paper penned eight years ago.) Good going Wisconsin—good luck!

In defense of brands

The Sydney (Australia) Morning Herald yesterday ran an article, “Twelve steps to a brand-free life,” by an individual who a short time ago beat his obsession with consumer labels and shopping. The author had been an avid fan of brands like Adidas and Apple, “to the point that I could not contemplate buying products made by their rivals.” He relied on brands “to increase my confidence at meetings (BlackBerry) or my status at the bar (Ralph Lauren).” He used to “escape the office to shop.”

This person, on deciding to “destroy my previously branded life,” set up “a public bonfire in central London, fuelled by my possessions. Twenty years of designer shopping went up in smoke.” The author says that “I have struggled to live my life brand-free ever since.” However, this is difficult because brands and their messages are everywhere.

The author states that “The message behind every brand is we will feel better for consuming more” but “consumer culture has transformed our lives for the worse. We work more and we imprison ourselves in debt.” He even goes so far as to blame materialism for inhibiting efforts at “tackling climate change.”

The author says “the symbol of a sports shoe manufacturer should not embody freedom. Nor should the symbol of a bag manufacturer embody aspiration.”

What is a brand-avid consumer to think when reading this article? First, obviously, compulsive shopping is different from compulsive brand identification. Compulsive shopping is no doubt an unhealthy thing, but needing to identify with brands can be a positive one—brands fill a human need to identify with something larger in life than just oneself. When you use a particular brand you are making a statement about yourself and your beliefs. There is no reason to give up such a powerful message.

Second, consumer culture is great, not terrible. People exist and interact in the marketplace, where they find they have a choice about which things they buy—brands provide that choice. And people don’t just shop because they want to, they shop because they need to.

Third, what a dull world when people resort to shopping army surplus for clothes, as the author does, and live without TV and the like. Brands don’t just bring meaning to life, they give it excitement. It is fun to look for the next big brand and to purchase items from the brand maker. Why should life be boring?

Undoubtedly a lot of people will identify with the author of this story, who decided that brands were too overwhelming a presence in his life and to minimize that. But I think that people who miss out on brands are missing out on life. There is so much out there to enjoy and consume, and brands make that possible.

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