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How social media has created an identity crisis for (some)brands

June 16, 2011
Author of How social media has created an identity crisis for (some)brands

How social media has created an identity crisis for (some)brands

June 15th, 2011 by Lauren Fisher in Brands

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We have reached an interesting point in the evolution of social media for brands,  where you can’t afford not to be there anymore, but with many companies being rushed or forced into this without considering how it really affects their brand identity. I believe the single biggest challenge for brands today, is to get to grips with the idea that any message you put out is going to be interpreted, re-interpreted and re-purposed, by which point it will look completely different to what you originally put out. This is a new concept for many brands and it is this interference with the message that has lead to an identity crisis for many brands (and individuals), as we come to terms with a new way of doing business and a new way of communicating that requires brands to have something completely new : a personality.

Surviving in the playground

When a brand enters into social media they don’t just enter into an arena where they have to use different media or techniques to spread the message, but where they need to be become an active member in these sites and deal with all the good – and bad that this brings with it. To succeed your brand must develop a strong personality, just as you would in the school playground. Sure there are going to be people that bully you and call you names, but if your brand is to have any resonance, there needs to be a consistency in the personality you develop and the messages you create. This isn’t to suggest that you simply ignore all the conversation that’s going on around you (that would lead to a lonely life in the playground as well), but that you find a way to be a part of it without compromising what you stand for. If brands don’t develop a strong personality and clearly define what they stand for and how they want to be perceived, you risk adapting and changing endlessly to be all things to everyone, before you find you’re nothing to no-one.

One of the most pressing areas for brands in social media is the need to start a conversation, to get people talking about your brand, product or service in a new way. While this has always been the case in some respect no matter what the communication method, in social media platforms this conversation must be instantaneous and more importantly, public. Every time you write a tweet, an update on your Facebook Page, it is your attempt to start a conversation among your followers. Every time you do this you need to think about the kind of conversation you want to start. Do you just want it to be something fun, focused completely on your brand, purely information gathering? The importance of this for brands mustn’t be overlooked. Every single time you write an update in your social channels, it is a reflection on your brand personality. If there’s no consistency here, there’s no consistency in your brand and your consumers get confused about what you stand for, or what they can actually get out of investing their time in you.

The leaderboard crisis

A contributing factor in the identity crisis for brands, is this automatic leaderboard that you enter into when you create a Facebook Page or Twitter account. You are instantly pitted against your competitors from a purely numerical point of view. You enter into a hierarchy system that suddenly impacts what you’re doing. You don’t question whether the communication you’re putting out supports your brand values and gets your key points across well – you question whether what you did got you enough Likes or comments. So you begin to shape what you do in order to encourage this. Your Facebook Page suddenly becomes the place where you have to make people laugh or click a thumbs up, instead of it being the central public resource for the latest news on your brand and products that it should be. Brands that misunderstand the purpose of their social communications risk just trying to be someone’s friend at all costs : the fact is that people already have their own, real friends on Facebook, what they’re looking for from you is something else altogether. There is almost this fear that has developed in social media, that you must avoid saying anything remotely promotional or people will leave. If you say it in the right way, they won’t, and in fact this is what the majority of people want from a brand in social media – offers, promotions and discounts.

Who is your personality?

A decision that brands have to make is who is going to be their brand representation in social channels and how they are going to be supported by the organisation. This isn’t as simple as just picking someone from the communications team and charging them with building out your Facebook Page. The person, or people that you choose to become your brand representative(s) online could currently be sitting in any department, yet they may be someone with a particular knowledge or passion for what you do, are committed, are already active on social media themselves and have an innate understanding of how to communicate with people through these new channels. In order for your brand personality to develop online you need to have the right person behind it and importantly, ensure they have the information they need. Far too often community managers sit in the wrong place in an organisation or are too low down the communications chain. They need to be one of the first in your company to know what’s going on – else how can they be expected to inform your followers?

This represents a shift in organisational structure for brands, that they must adapt to in order to really succeed in social media. Not only do you need to create this brand new role, but you need to comfortable with the fact that they could well be the most important person in your company right now. Get it wrong and you risk facing a crisis like Nestle did, where an already bad situation was made spectacularly worse because of the nature of communications on their Facebook Page.

I don’t know, you tell us?

I think perhaps the perfect example of social media creating an identity crisis for brands is in the furore that surrounded Gap’s logo disaster. Upon creating a new logo they decided to share it with their online community first before rolling out the rebrand in full, then completely backtracked when it didn’t go down too well. When the criticism started rolling in, they announced that the logo would only be used on the holiday line and wouldn’t appear on other branding company-wide. While you can certainly interpret this as a company being reactive to social media and listening to what their fans are saying, this also represents a slight identity crisis at Gap. A logo change shouldn’t be underestimated – coming second only to changing your name it is a fundamental aspect in how your brand is portrayed and recognised. The outcome of this is that it looks like Gap really didn’t have a clue what their brand should be, and let the message become far too distorted through the backlash. Compare this to the likes of Facebook, a truly social brand, yet who have no problem sticking to their guns when a new site change gets rolled out. They have the petitions, the anti-Facebook Pages, the calls to leave the site altogether, yet they stick with the change because they know it’s right, and sure enough the criticism dies down and the site keeps on growing.

The Gap logo is just one example of how a brand needs to develop their clear and strong identity that must be maintained through social media. There’s a line between being reactive to conversation and letting the conversation actually become your brand. No brand today is going to survive if they become completely one-way, but there’s an inherent risk in letting the identity develop completely in the public. We still want and need brands to tell us what we want and need. A brand can’t do that if they’re in the midst of an identity crisis themselves as the trust and confidence disappears.

Doing social but not sure how

Morgan Stanley have recently decided to give their employees the OK to tweet, effectively creating a whole host of new online ambassadors for the brand, which is an important shift for an organisation such as theirs. This hasn’t come without it’s difficulties however, as of course an organisation like Morgan Stanley has a different set of considerations for its brokers, given the sensitive nature of information they have access to and deal with. Therefore the tweeting has come with a set of limitations, including that their tweets will have to be pre-approved and must be logged for a minimum of 3 years.  This is completely at odds without how social media functions and you have to question how useful or engaging these Twitter accounts will be, when there is a level of censorship that will be carried out before anything reaches our screens. This is a good example of a brand using social , perhaps before they’re ready. If they can’t allow their brokers to use social media in the same way as anyone else, should they have let them use it at all? The motivations for Morgan Stanley here are good, but it perhaps represents a brand facing an identity crisis in that they know they should make their employees and the brand social, but without really understanding how this can work, or even the fact that their industry just might not be ready for it.

Some brands of course, are getting this absolutely right and, not surprisingly, they are largely those companies that already have an enviable brand, such as Innocent Smoothies, Zappos, Cadburys. Companies with strong brand personalities that are adapting to social media without losing the strength of their brand.

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