A brand is an external stakeholder’s gut feeling about an organization. It is the intangible benefits associated with your brand that make it unique and valuable to these stakeholders. It is an organization’s reputation, how the organization is talked about when they are not around. Despite all wishing or testimony to the contrary, in the age of social media, your brand will always, always, always be what they say it is, whether or not that aligns with what you say it is.
Branding in the age of social media is about delivering the ability for external stakeholders to create and control an emotion or perspective while helping them to truly feel and believe that emotion or perspective. It is about stakeholder empowerment through authenticity.
Marketing in the past has focused on selling to customers, while branding takes a broader perspective and longer arc. Selling is about acquiring customers while branding is about retaining followers. This is particularly important for professional service organizations (PSOs) that base their business on maintaining long term relationships and deep levels of trust. Branding, particularly in professional services fields, is about supporting a firm’s reputation, building on long-term relationships and fostering trust. This is illustrated through the reimagining of the traditional marketing sales funnel as the relationship cycle.
While followers have bristled at and shunned branded content from consumer brands, the same is not be true of PSOs. Many followers expect PSOs to provide insight and clear direction on complex topics that affect their world. Still, it is important that PSO branded content not be seen as brand spam, polluting a follower’s feed. A PSO should seek to deliver content that sits at the intersection of what followers need, what they expect from an organization, and what (slight and permissible) push these followers might need to help them evolve their view of that organization and advance that brand’s story.
Millennials and digital natives spurn the notion of being categorized and segmented by marketers. Instead, it is better to exhibit values that are true and authentic of your brand and valuable to your stakeholders; to let them self-identify their own groups around your brand. The goal should not be to simply sell a service, it should be to enable potential followers to come to your brand and make an emotional connection there. Your followers want to see that your brand truly stands for something when they build their impression of your organization in their minds.
Brands don’t collect followers. Followers join brands, especially on social media where they sometimes literally subscribe to them. These followers are more empowered than ever through technology to band together with likeminded individuals to help define a brand. If your brand is not helping to further empower these groups of followers, they will go to whoever is willing to.
Empowerment means helping your followers to feel in control, they will remember who helped them to get there. Empowerment could take the form of helping them find many things such as emotional assurance, career advancement, personal development or even greater physical wellbeing, but it will not be achieved if they perceive your brand touchpoints as being disingenuous or not relevant to who they believe you are.
By empowering your followers, they in-turn strengthen your brand against the competition. Your followers will ultimately drive your brand’s success and it is your role to support them to do so. The most successful brands are ones that have found ways to empower their followers to be stronger advocates.
Your followers will look for each experience and touchpoint they have with your brand to reflect their expectation of what your brand stands for. If an experience is incongruent with your overall brand, pull it, or risk your followers pulling away from you. In that same vein, when you have the inclination to add more elements to your message, you should find something else to eliminate. Users have a limited bandwidth and it’s often more effective to communicate with a more refined message. A mess does not effectively reinforce who you are and what you stand for.
Credibility is about knowing yourself; it is about knowing not just what your organization stands for but what most others feel your organization stands for and delivering on that promise in their minds.
Factors that are important in driving your brand’s credibility in social media engagements:
- Value and relevance to users
- Timeliness (but not trendiness)
Following trends results in your brand saying the same thing as a dozen or even hundreds of other organizations. This erodes or eliminates many of the factors which are important to driving your credibility. By targeting novel ideologies that are still authentic to who your brand is to you and your followers, you can assert a point of view that rises above the clutter.
It is important to remember that social media will always be one channel and not the whole story. To truly resonate with followers, brands will still need to activate on an authentic, unique, consistent and relevant level at all user touchpoints. An organization’s widely accepted and understood perspective and strategy are critical to maintaining this level of consistency.
Your brand becomes accountable to its followers, so your messages should continue to stand for what followers are there for: the authentic and empowering values and perspectives that they have self-selected into. If they feel that this has been betrayed they will just as easily turn on you and self-select out.
Communicating with followers is no longer a one-way communication channel. It is not even a two-way communication channel; it is a potentially infinite-directional channel with every touchpoint capable of spurring a thousand more touchpoints about your brand. Followers are already empowered (whether they know it or not), so it is your responsibility to help them to use that power for your brand’s good.