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Companies have traditionally branded themselves with fictional characters that represent products or services (think the Brawny man or Mr. Peanut). These classic symbols function as the personalities of the brands and a brand character is often the first association people make with the product or service.

But social media is changing this dynamic. Consumers now are using blogs, forums and social networking sites to interact with each other and their favorite brands. In a quest to communicate on a more personal level, companies are increasingly speaking through the voices of actual people rather than their fictional spokesperson ( Ford’s Scott Monty and Zappos’ CEO Tony Hsieh).

Which brings us to this week’s question:

How do we strike the balance between brand personality and having a personality as your brand?

CHRIS:

Brands stand to benefit greatly from personal representation on social networking sites. People in these spaces are accustomed to interacting with people, not corporate beasts. People identify better with a single person who they can actually get to know. A face and a logo can act to represent the brand in a way that consumers can relate to on a personal level.

AMANDA:

Sure, a company should try to reach out to consumers on a personal level. No arguments there. BUT a business should not depend on a single person to act as the brand identity for the entire company. There’s too much at risk. People make mistakes. They change companies and they’re not invincible. Using human faces and personalities to support an existing brand campaign works great – look at Apple, Inc. , for example. The company has long built its brand on being the forward-thinking, ground-breaking, “cool” technology company.The Get a Mac campaign portrays Apple as cool, young and trendy, while PC is a middle-aged, stuffy guy.

In 2006, Apple launched its “Get a Mac” ad campaign, portraying Macs (young, well-groomed actor Justin Long) as cool and trendy and PCs (a middle-aged, husky guy with glasses) as stuffy and outdated. Putting a face to the Apple brand – and putting that face next to a stereotypically “dorky” one – helped reinforce Apple’s outstanding brand image, but it wasn’t the only campaign the company had going. Ads featuring the new iPods ran in conjunction with the Get a Mac launch, and the company continues to air ads that focus solely on the product’s “cool and trendy” technology. Using people to support the brand is a great strategy, but basing a company’s entire reputation on one person is just plain dangerous.

CHRIS:

Apple is a great example of a company that’s fostered a community to support its brand. The “Mac” character in the popular commercials has helped Apple create a dedicated following of real people interacting in the online world. It’s these REAL people who enhance Apple’s branding efforts, and something the company counts count on when releasing new products (CEO Steve Jobs is a master at using secrecy to spawn excitement for Apple’s announcements.)

Not every company is lucky enough to have this kind of loyal following though. Companies looking to establish a community are smart to employ a specific individual with the task of interacting with REAL people online. In the SM space, too many brand symbols can be confusing, and a corporate identity can seem contrived. Though fostering an Apple-esque community is ultimately the responsibility of an entire department (be it Marketing/PR/Advertising), the brand’s voice needs to be a personal one – what better way than to make this be the voice of an actual person?

AMANDA:

Yea, but if you’re depending on a single person’s voice, you have to be willing and ready for the worst possible scenario. One of my favorite examples of the danger in celebrity endorsement is the Beef Industry Council – this group seems to have some bad luck picking spokespeople. James Garner seemed like a great choice – I mean, who doesn’t like Darby’s Rangers? The campaign was going great… until it got out that Garner had quadruple-bypass heart surgery while promoting the wonders of artery-clogging protein. Yea…

So the Beef Council took another stab at branding with spokeswoman Cybill Shepard. What could go wrong? She’s a respectable, healthy Southern woman… who let it slip that she doesn’t eat meat. Strike two.

I’m not saying Sharpie should drop its popular Sharpie Susan because there is a slight chance she might go to rehab for marker-sniffing or announce she favors Crayola. I’m saying be careful how many eggs you put into your person-as-a-brand basket.

CHRIS:

The Beef Council is an excellent example of how personalities can destroy an organization’s image. But personalities can help a brand just as much as Garner and Shepard hurt their brand. Think Jessica Simpson rep-ing proactive, Jared the Subway guy or Charelton Heston acting as the President for the NRA (though some NRA members may disagree on this).

BUT…. In the scheme of things, these mega personalities (read: celebrities), don’t help foster the relationships that REAL people do. I’ll use one of my favorite brands to prove my point.

Pandora Radio is a unique online music service that plays “only music you like.” The company has fostered a fairly significant online community with >32,000 followers on Twitter and >111,000 fans on Facebook, thanks to a team of online marketers and IT folks. But the effort is headed by one person, Lucia, who balances her personality with that of the brand. By letting one person champion all online interactions for the brand, Pandora has allowed Lucia to establish human relationships. For me, this personal interaction is much more significant than any engagement I could have with a logo.

AMANDA:

I think it’s great that you and Lucia are so close, Chris, but I have to assume that with more than 32,000 followers, she can’t be making these personal connections with everyone. There just isn’t enough time. And if her face is the face of Pandora, what happens when she decides to leave? Does the Pandora personality and its credibility go with her? What if she just needs a break – managing an entire SM marketing campaign must be stressful – does the team take over on her accounts? Then you open a whole new can of worms with the ghostwriting issue.

It’s more consistent to create a brand identity that is not that of a real person. Such an identity has no expiration date and allows more people to help manage brand communications. With more people working on the account, you can build a more effective brand personality. I don’t know about you, but that cute little gecko has about as much personality as any person I know, and I would totally follow him on Twitter. The random Allstate woman? Notsomuch. No offense, but her face means nothing to me except “MARKETING.”

But obviously we’re on two separate pages as usual, Mr. Sledzik. I wonder the readers think?

Social Media’s all the rage. But is it keeping you from what you’re supposed to be doing?

We know this new technology isn’t the end-all-be-all of the PR/Advertising world, but it is significant. So much so, that some companies are hiring SM specialists to focus solely in this realm. But where does that leave the rest of us? Should we ignore our Twitter and Facebook feeds during the day? Is it wrong to read or <gasp> write a blog post between the hours of 9 and 5?

Is it wrong to use SM on company time?

chris prompt

CHRIS:

If you’re in PR, you’re responsible for your company or client’s reputation. This means knowing what people are saying about you and your brand. SM is a great place to start, especially if you operate in the consumer market. And while most PR/Marketing Communication agencies now have full-time staffers devoted to SM “listening,” many companies still avoid the SM playground for various reasons.

But why? Don’t they understand the value of monitoring sites like Twitter and Facebook? Can’t they see the value in the early warning systems of Google Alerts, or the ROI a company can gain from engaging in industry specific forums and wikis? In my eyes, it’s the role of the PR professional to be aware of these opportunities and train employees on how to take advantage of them. Social Media is about engaging with external audiences, and in my eyes, that’s the essence of public relations.

amandafaceAMANDA:

I’m not here to argue that any communications professional should ignore social media – that would just be irresponsible. Like Motrin learned from the mommy bloggers, social media is just as important as any traditional communication forum. It just takes a spark to start a wildfire, and it’s important for us to monitor what is being said about our companies online so we can address any issues before they become full-on disasters.

I will argue, however, that there is a fine line between effectively monitoring social media and letting it take over your workday. What were you hired to do? More and more companies are creating social media positions – a good idea for companies that have the resources, in my opinion. But for those at companies that haven’t jumped on that train yet – how much of your workday should be devoted to SM?

CHRIS:

While it may not appear specifically in a job description, we’re all charged with professional development throughout our careers. Over the course of five years with a company, you should not only by knowledgeable about how that company does business, but also learn more about your role and how to do it more efficiently and effectively. While management and supervisors can be great sources of wisdom and experience, an infinite amount of information is only a few clicks away – and with SM, it’s now specific and personal.

For instance, I subscribe to a number of professional newsletters and blogs that give me invaluable information specific to my job. Suggestions that help me do my job better, quicker and cheaper. Should I forgo reading these blogs on company time because they also help me personally? Not happening (and I think my employer would agree). The trick here, is looking at Twitter feeds and blog rolls through the lens of my position as the company’s communicator. I ask myself, is this relevant to my job and how can I apply it? If  it doesn’t apply, I tag it for after hours.

balance-scale

AMANDA:

Absolutely. If you grow as a professional, chances are your company will benefit – however, I think this gets tricky with social media. The fact is, social media was meant for people to engage, well, socially. Yes, professionals interact via SM constantly, and I’ve learned a lot from watching what these experienced pros say on their blogs and Twitter pages. It just seems like a slippery slope – there is virtually no hard line between what could and couldn’t be considered ultimately beneficial to your work productivity.

But, as important as my boss thinks online media is, I wasn’t hired to grow an online presence – neither mine nor the company’s. Do I ignore social media during the workday? Not at all. I have Google alerts and SM keyword searches on my company’s brand and I absolutely RT when someone tweets a positive message about the company or product. But I can’t justify focusing on social media – even if it could be considered beneficial to the company – at the expense of my assigned responsibilities.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t go above and beyond what we are hired to do – I am definitely not saying we should ignore SM or not consider what other ways we could advance our client or company. I guess all I’m trying to point out is that, as sexy as SM is, we need to make sure we aren’t sacrificing performance or efficiency in our assigned roles in favor of social media management.

CHRIS:

I’ll agree that engaging in SM while at work is all about time management, and finding a balance is definitely tricky. But ultimately, I think the PR pro is better off engaging throughout the day as the potential ROI for the company is too big to be ignored (so long as the day-to-day tasks are still being completed).

But it looks like we’ve got another sticky one here. And another one people can relate to, considering most are probably reading at work. But we want your input. With less than 4 years combined experience, Amanda and I realize our words only carry so much mustard. So, let us know what you do. Or maybe more importantly, what your employer demands you do. (FYI, if the comment box doesn’t appear below, click on the top title of the post then scroll down.)