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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well-groomed actor Justin Long) as cool and trendy and PCs (a middle-aged, husky guy with glasses) as stuffy and outdated.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?

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The Internet, no doubt the most significant technological advancement in the 21st century, brought countless new forms of communication that connect people around the globe. Email, chat rooms, blogs and other Web tools allow us to connect with people from places we have never seen and might never even go to. People with common interests build online relationships without ever meeting face-to-face and online dating is one of the Internet’s biggest and highest-grossing industries.

Of course, we also interact with friends, family and others whom we know “In Real Life” via the Internet. Facebook, the most popular of all social networks, allows us to find and keep in touch with former colleagues and classmates. But is posting a message to a friend’s page as personal as a phone call or lunch date? Do we ignore our “Real” relationships for online buddies? In other words…

Is social media making us less social?

amandafaceAmanda:

This clip from the movie Wall-E is all too close to reality for me (you only need to watch about 30 seconds from this link to get my point). We are so consumed by electronic communication that we are losing touch with actual person-to-person interaction. I’m guilty as well – I feel incredibly lost and awkward if I leave my cell phone at home and go in public alone. But sometimes I think we are so caught up in our digi-lives that we forget what REAL interaction feels like.

chrisface2Chris:

IMO, social media isn’t replacing “real life” communication so much as it is facilitating interactions that otherwise wouldn’t happen. Between mobile Internet devices and applications designed to run in the background (a la TweetDeck), professionals engaging in social media are making the most out of their time — and making the most of their “self-diagnosed ADHD“. Although responding to tweets or commenting on a blog post isn’t as rich as F2F interaction, I don’t see folks canceling meetings because they’re too busy updating their Facebook page or growing their online network.

Amanda:

I agree growing your network is extremely important, but quality still trumps quantity. I might be connected to potential employers via social media, but if I don’t do anything to build those relationships, what does it matter? It’s great we’re able to meet people around the world online, but until there is some quality, one-on-one effort, do you really feel connected to an avatar? SM is a good icebreaker, as Chuck Hemann pointed out in a comment on our first post, but if you don’t build on every relationship, what’s the point? You might have 14,789 “buddies” on Facebook, but how many would you actually call your friends?

Chris:

Though don’t yet have 14,000-some FB friends, I do admit that the age of information overload is upon us, and it applies to social networking just as much as it does to digital content. As the number of SM adapters continues to grow, the number of people bombarding us to “connect” will also grow. But I fail to see how this is a bad thing. Granted the ratio of quality relationships to total connections will always be fairly small, value comes in two distinct forms: 1) the sheer number of leads that can come from a large online network (think the long tail) and 2) the few digital connections that proliferate IRL that wouldn’t have happened without SM. Though it’s impossible to build on EVERY connection, it may just take one relationship to make a difference.

Amanda:

Okay, I agree there are a few cases when social media is the best way to connect without being too creepy. Facebook is a great way to “see” friends who have moved away or to semi-stalk your ex to make sure his new girlfriend isn’t that cute. HOWEVER, I think social media is making us lazy in too many of our relationships. Yea, I could call my high school friends to see what they did last weekend, but I won’t. It’s a lot easier to just visit their SM pages, read other people’s comments and click through their photo albums. I know I’m not the only one who “keeps in contact” with most of her old friends this way, but I bet I’m also not the only one who gets mad at herself for limiting these friendships to online “interactions.”

Chris:

I have nearly 800 friends on Facebook – a virtual collection of people I’ve met F2F at least once. But connecting with these folks through social media doesn’t weaken our relationships. Interaction in the online world allows me to stay on top of what my friends and family are doing without a phone call. I can see pictures from my friend’s vacation hiking in the southwest, and get a better idea of how the vacation went then I ever could from a phone call. Then I can follow up with a phone call and and talk about the pictures.

But the best part about SM, is its ability to connect me to people I might otherwise forget. I’ll be honest: I’m not always going to take the time to call my second cousin, or the guy who lived down the hall from me sophomore year, but if I see they’ve posted pics on Facebook or tweeted something cool, chances are I’ll check it out and send them a note – it’s not the most genuine of connections, but more than would happen otherwise.

Amanda:

Yea, SM lets us make many more connections than we otherwise would, but using social media is much different than depending on it. I think this Coleman ad campaign says it perfectly – it reminds us what social interaction should be. While I’ll probably never give up my SM addiction (a minor problem, compared to some), I still say I’d rather fully immerse myself in the experience and enjoy life than tweet about it all the time, thinking other people care. ‘Cause at the end of the day, I can have a million followers but if my strongest relationship is with my laptop, I won’t be happy. Maybe you see things differently, but I still feel too much social media gets in the way of Real Life. I say put down the Blackberry and wherever you are, be all there.

Chris:

While I’m not here to debate my social media addiction (let’s just say I’m definitely in Amanda’s “some” category), I will maintain that these tools ultimately foster relationships more than they destroy them. Like the folks in the Coleman ads, I too like to live my life deliberately, but I see emerging digital communication platforms as tools to help me do so.
image courtesy of Marketing Weblog & singlemindedwomen.com

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