We’re probably in the 2nd year of trench warfare between brands and social media, and while we see regular reports of battles the winner has yet to emerge from the fog of war. In fact the prophets of this war go back much further, including The Cluetrain Manisfesto 10 years ago, Communities Dominate Brands in 2005, and several others.
It’s only with the advent of new and mass social media platforms that the war has finally erupted on several fronts. Social media advocates have indeed raided the territory of brands and their agencies and owners. Major battles are now being waged over the future of brands, if any; the worth of advertising is of course also in the wars; the role of marketing is being questioned and not only questioned but redefined; and new means to achieve customer loyalty are being run up flagpoles to see who salutes.
What I find confusing, although this may be my own ignorance, is the terminology. Perhaps not just the terminology but any common consensus on what we are talking about when we say "brand" and "branding". If we could get that agreed, then I think there are trends with which most of us would agree.
There is one strong element of the social media "push" which says that "brands are dead", and often this is sensationalised across the commercial and social media. Surely brands will always exist, and have positive or negative or neutral business value. One reason we know this is that the strongest advocates of the power of social media and its impact on brands would generally be considered to have established a "brand" for themselves.
So if brands are a promise, and translate to fulfilled experiences and satisfied expectations, then they will represent value to customers and return value to their owners. The delivery of the promise is the brand depth.
Social media, as part of the total customer engagment and experience, will accelerate the rise and fall of brand value because of the power of communities. Where the brand promise is not matched by brand depth the social media will enable the relentless exposure of that weakness.
Your brand is what your customers make it, and the customers and their networks are becoming more powerful and playing a bigger role in defining brands and brand value. And what’s interesting is that social media, through facilitating easier customer engagement, is empowering employees across an organisation to have a much more powerful impact on brand value. Not just in being able to "communicate" with customers and partners but in how they are empowered to communicate and how they feel about the company and product or service about which they are communicating.
In this context social media plays a very important cross-business role which embraces the whole breadth of customer engagement. It’s this whole engagement and the holistic business planning and implementation which is missing from most social media discussions today.
Currently, most discussions of social media are focused purely on its relationship to branding. Yet it appears to me that in contrast to brands, which will survive, branding is the most likely victim of the rise of social media.
By branding I mean the efforts of marketers to convince you of the value of a brand, usually by trying to short-cut the rather arduous process of delivering consistently on the brand promise over time. Of course marketers may often find themselves in inenviable positions, with dud products and enthusiastic owners who wish to make cheap grabs for market share or profit. Unfortunately most marketers and agencies embrace and even encourage these opportunities as a chance to show their "creative skills". And unfortunately it is with this brush that much "social media" is tarred today. It’s essentially creative crap!
In the world of communities, social media, and comprehensive customer engagement and experience models, this kind of "branding" is dead as the dodo.
This kind of branding also embraces the associated advertising which is equally worthless and it is this category of advertising which some social media experts proclaim to be dead. As an advertising category I would agree – it is as dead as manipulative branding.
The Marketing Challenge
For all of its current weaknesses and current falling credibility marketing and advertising is not going to go away, except that associated with the "branding" as discussed above which will certainly self-destruct.
It’s going to reinvent itself in the context of not pushing messages to a market segment, an audience, but by seeing itself as part of a total customer engagement and experience model. This model will embrace the whole company, and the important spaces and places in the social media where relevant conversations take place. These "relevant" conversations could include any or all of conversations about the company, its products and brands, its people, partners and competitors.
When Marketing does this it will again create the link between brand promise and brand experience, and be part of the overall creation of real brand value.
Organisationally, Marketing will become a member of a real-time cross-functional team which as a whole embraces the customer engagment. This is in stark contrast to today, where most Marketing has degenerated to branding. And make no mistake, this degeneration is the big problem that has led to the undeniable trend of declining influence of advertising and marketing today. It is disconnected from the experience and total customer engagement.
There’s nothing new in all this to purist and forward-thinking marketers as marketing was always intended to be only one part of a customer experience, and everything was meant to interact and to be consistent. It’s just that it has mostly failed to deliver and been taken hostage by "campaigns" and short-term thinking. The rise of social media is important because it exposes this "state of the art" for what it is – treating customers with contempt and ramming "messages" down "channels".
Future Brands, Marketing and Advertising
Branding, in the above context, is dead. Brands will always have a place in our B2C and B2B ecosystems, and some will rise far above others, as now.
The ones that rise the furthest will reinvent their Marketing function and their marketing to become a true part of the long-term engagement to build brand value through the execution of the tangible traits, through coordinated cross-organisational and social media contributions and participation.