Make Your Brand Messaging Work

Brand messages are positioning and marketing statements about your offering that tell customers why they should use your product or service, why they should care, and what it means to them. They must not only be different from competitors, they must be relevant, authentic, and accessible to your target market. In other words, it’s not just what you say that matters, it is where and how that message is communicated, and to whom.

 

The first step in making your brand messaging work is to say the right things that connect emotionally with the audience. While luck and intuition might play a role in developing your brand message, some simple objective research techniques will yield better results:

 

Field Research

 

This is something that anyone can do, not just a market research firm. “Field” simply implies that you should get out and get to know your customers, your competitors, and you industry better. Interviews and surveys are a good start (see “Your Brand is Not What You Think It Is…”), but they sometimes don’t dive deep enough into the psyche of the customer. Instead, go to the places where they shop, where they relax, or the setting in which they use the product or service. Find out how they interact with the brand. Observing other retailers in the vicinity to see what messages they are communicating can also offer insight into appropriate brand messages. Have you ever noticed how there always seems to be a Taco Bell within a few blocks of a US Bank; or a Lowe’s Home Improvement Warehouse near a Walmart? There is a reason that certain stores cluster together: they are targeting the same type of customer.

 

Literature Research

 

If getting out of the office is too difficult or not an option, then another great way to discover how to develop the right brand message is to simply check out your local bookstore. There are literally thousands of magazines to choose from, many tailored to very specific niche markets. Odds are you will find a few magazines that appeal to your target market–simply flipping through them will give you a good idea of trends within the industry, language that is used, and imagery and colors that are appropriate. These literary sources already do a great amount of research into your target market, so why not use that to your advantage?

 

Once the brand messaging has been developed, the context in which it appears is equally important. If your message says all the right things, but no one from your target market sees or hears it, then it will be ineffective. Likewise, if messaging is placed within marketing vehicles that seem to contradict it, or if people can’t immediate comprehend what you are saying, the perception of the brand is affected. I call this the “Billboard” test: if you were in a car travelling at a high rate of speed, with only a fraction of second to read a marketing or brand message, would you get it?

 

Vanity license plates are a great and fun way to demonstrate the importance of context in communicating the right message. The following are real license plates, and great examples of why the type of automobile on which they appear make all the difference as to how the message may be interpreted. For example, if you quickly glanced a license plate that read “4MYHORS,” you would hope to see a trailer attached to a truck or SUV (in this case, there was none). In another example, a Corvette had a license plate that read “THERAPE.” While I am sure that the individual driving this car was probably a psychologist (“Therapy”), the message could just as easily be interpreted as something more sinister.

 

In conclusion, two of the most important factors to consider with regard to your brand message are what you should say (the content), and where and how you say it (the context). By performing simple research, it is possible to tailor a highly relevant message to your target audience. Once created, however, it is important to find the best way to communicate the message so that it is crystal clear. The perceptions of your brand message will ultimately affect your bottom line.

 

Ryan Hembree, principal of brand and creative strategy, Indicia

Brand Startup Costs

As a brand identity firm, Indicia helps companies of all sizes develop and enhance their brand image. Many times we work with startup companies who have a great product or concept they need designed so it can “go to market.” Other times we work with more established companies trying to launch a new product or service. Regardless of the creative challenge, one of the most important considerations (and questions that we are often asked) is: how much is this going to cost?

 

For startups trying to bring a new product or concept to market, knowing the cost to design, develop and manufacture the brand is critical (the “brand” could be the product itself, or the packaging, logo, etc.). Budgets are often tight (if not non-existent), so factoring in startup costs (plus desired profit margins) into the expected retail price is important to determining whether or not the initiative is feasible. Typically, a 4X factor is desirable, meaning that startup costs multiplied by 4 will determine the final retail price; if a product cannot be sold for that amount, then the entrepreneur should consider a larger initial production run (read: greater investment), eliminate any “middleman” distribution, or try to reduce some of their marketing costs.

 

By reducing marketing costs, we do not suggest “do it yourself” or going to an online or low-cost provider for the design of logos, packaging, or web sites: the old adage “you get what you pay for” is often proved true in these cases, and you might end up paying twice for something that could have been done right in the first place. We suggest you speak with at least two or three marketing and design firms prior to making a decision; even though you will pay more than an online “solution” or freelance designer, the results should far exceed the cost in terms of increased brand perception and sales.

 

For companies trying to launch a product or service, consider how the brand will be marketed. A “starter” brand kit usually consists of a logo, paper system (business cards, letterhead, etc.), a simple brochure and/or a website. If relationship-based selling with face-to-face interaction is key to the success of the brand, then perhaps a leave-behind sales kit is appropriate—consisting of a custom designed presentation folder, a small informational brochure, as well as product or service-specific insert sheets. If simple brand awareness is desired, then a revamped web site or interactive animation or video will help generate excitement and generate traffic to your web site. Depending upon the industry, product or service, and the brand components required, initial start-up or launch costs can range from $10,000 to $15,000 (based on industry averages—actual costs may vary depending on scope and complexity of projects).

 

Even though the initial costs of branding can exceed $10,000 or more, it is important to remember that these are typically one-time fees spread over the development of all designed components (which could last several months). They can be amortized over the brand’s production and life cycle costs, or considered customer acquisition. Brand startup costs are “profit and revenue generators,” not “costs,” because a well-designed brand has been proven to sell more units, be more profitable, and add value to the company’s bottom line.

 

By: Ryan Hembree

 

Building Authentic Brands

Some of the most beloved brands have a reputation in terms of the characteristics associated with them. This “personality” is what enables them to connect emotionally with customers. Like personal relationships, there are some brands that people love; some that they love to hate; or some they may feel indifferent toward. The most important quality that a brand possesses is its authenticity.

 

To be authentic, brands must say what they do, and then do what they say.

 

A brand is a promise to deliver value that is meaningful for the consumer. Pricing, product quality, and how it is promoted are all core values that must be consistent with customer perception. In order to be authentic, a brand must remain true to itself and to the promises it makes with customers.

 

Brands that promise exclusivity and limited availability (and thus a premium price) cannot be sold at a mass-market, volume discount retailer for a lower price. Likewise, product quality must be consistent with its pricing—shoddy materials or service will destroy the perceived value of the brand. With so many choices, customers very rarely give products a second chance, so make sure that your brand is of superior quality.

 

Promoting your brand is very important to delivering an authentic experience for customers. Employees are often the first touch-point that customers will have with a product or service. As brand ambassadors, their actions (good or bad) can impact a brand’s perception. If they don’t believe in and act out the values of the brand, the brand loses relevance. For example, if an employee’s personality is such that they seem arrogant or ignorant, that attitude will turn away customers who feel the product or service no longer cares about their needs.

 

Dave Ramsey, the founder of Financial Peace Plaza, is a great example of an authentic brand. His organization is driven to help people pay off their consumer debt, save money and work toward achieving wealth. He offers a common-sense approach and lives the brand: everything from his casual wardrobe to his mannerisms and likability makes him very approachable and “real.” At a recent live event, however, I began to question his authenticity because of the incessant sales pitches to buy more “products” on how to manage money (thus going against his own teachings of “saving more and spending less”). Further complicating these mixed emotions was the fact that his 22-year-old daughter (who represents the brand to the youth market) was there, dressed in fancy clothes and flashing an expensive gold watch and huge diamond ring.

 

In summary, the best way to build an authentic brand is to do what you say and say what you mean. Avoid contradictions in terms of pricing, product quality and/or service, and how it is promoted. Remember what makes your brand relevant to customers, and then deliver on that promise. Nothing will destroy your brand quicker than losing its authenticity.

 

By: Ryan Hembree, Principal of Brand and Creative Strategy, Indicia

 

Your brand is not what you think it is…it’s what your customers say it is

Many companies go through great time and expense hiring marketing firms to help connect with, engage and spur customers to buy their products or services. These firms often conduct competitive research within the brand’s industry and by polling key stakeholders and employees. While this information is insightful, the simple (and more cost effective) solution to find out why customers do or do not use your product or service is to simply ask them–after all, a brand is not what you or your employees think it is, it is what your customers say it is.

 

By “asking” customers about your brand, we don’t recommend holding formal roundtable discussions or focus groups. Instead, a scripted five- to ten-minute phone call with fewer than ten current and former customers will allow you to obtain a much better, and more honest sampling of customer insights.

 

Even though most people will agree to an interview, their time is valuable so you should treat it as such; ask no more than 5-6 questions, and be sure to record each conversation for transcription purposes. Ask open-ended questions about theirexperience with your brand. This will not only provide insight into their true thoughts, feelings, and motivations, it will help spur further discussion.

 

Some questions that might be asked of your most loyal customers include the following:

 

“What is the first thing that you think of when you think of Brand XYZ?”
“What are the reasons why you use, or chose to use, Brand XYZ?”
“If you could change one thing about Brand XYZ, what would it be and why?”
“If Brand XYZ ceased to exist, what would you miss most?”

 

Some questions that might be asked of former customers might include the following.

Remember, having an impartial interviewer asking these questions will provide more honest responses:

“How did your perceptions of Brand XYZ change over time?”
“Why did you choose to stop using Brand XYZ?”
“What does Brand XYZ’s closest competitor do better?”
“Was there anything that could have prevented you from leaving Brand XYZ?”

 

Interviews may be conducted by either an employee or an outside consultant–just be mindful that you might not get the “whole truth” if customers know they are speaking with a company insider. And although this approach might not be considered a quantitative or scientific method for research, it is not supposed to be. Instead, is meant to be anecdotal, insightful, and most of all, honest. A brand that is not authentic to its customers simply cannot be successful.

 

By: Ryan Hembree, Principal of Creative and Brand Strategy, Indicia

How to be relevant to your customers

Some companies will often try a shotgun approach to branding, that is, by trying a bunch of different marketing tactics to promote their brand. But is your brand really reaching your customers? More importantly, is it resonating with them so they feel compelled to buy your product or service?

 

In order to be strategic about marketing your brand, you must first put yourself in your customers’ shoes and map the experience they will have with your brand. This exercise will pinpoint the “touch points” in which you have the best opportunity to connect with customers, and identify the ones that are most relevant to them. Mapping this Brand Experience is as simple as dissecting the following four purchasing behaviors:

 

1. Pre-Purchase/Brand investigation

 

Today most customers find companies via the web, so make sure that your online presence is professional and speaks to their needs. If you do a lot of one-on-one or direct marketing, such as tradeshows, then a new booth and small leave-behind brochures might be appropriate. Be sure to consider the frustrations that potential customers might have in contacting your firm—be sure that you include a call to action that is measurable through a different phone number, email address or campaign-specific web landing page.

 

2. Making a Purchase Decision

 

Be sure that marketing materials answer any questions that customers may have about your product or service. This might involve the creation of a sales kit or a more professional presentation. Clearly communicate the services, and more importantly, the benefits of your brand over the competition, and help overcome any misconceptions or objections they might have. Knowing customer objections ahead of time is key to establishing credibility and a comfort-level with your brand.

 

3. Post-Purchase/Follow-through

 

Once the sale is complete, it is easy for companies to “move on” to the next big deal, sometimes leaving customers to wonder why they chose your product or service in the first place. This is the biggest opportunity to reinforce (or tarnish) your brand’s image. Be sure to follow up with consistent service by delivering on what you promise.

 

4. Building Long-term relationships

 

Staying at top of mind, even after the successful sale or completion of a project, shows customers you care. Check in every once in a while by developing an eNewsletter that they will receive in their inbox every month or so. Send them note cards when you read about them in the news, or to show them what else you have been working on that may be of interest. If customers use social media such as Facebook. LinkedIn or Twitter (and it makes sense resource- and budget-wise for you to do so), make sure that you have established a presence there as well.

 

While the tactics listed above may or may not be appropriate for your particular brand, the four steps in the sales process are universal regardless of your product or service. The important thing is to start thinking like your customers in order to build a brand that will connect with them. By creating a truly relevant brand, you will not only be more profitable as a result of your marketing initiatives, you will build brand loyalty as well.

 

By: Ryan Hembree, Principal | Brand Strategy, Indicia.

 

Branding is in the Eye of the Beholder

Depending on whom you ask, the term “branding” can mean different things to different people or groups of professionals. Manufacturers, distributors and retailers each have their own perception about the value that their products or services deliver to customers. So when trying to promote their brand, where should they go for help?

 

To the advertising agency, branding is about promotion and repetition: saturate the media with images and messaging so that hopefully the product or service stays “top of mind” with the customer.

 

To the marketer, branding is about the message: what are the benefits of the product or service and what media will be used to communicate it?

 

For the public relations professional, branding is establishing a relationship with the target audience, and making them feel good about the company and their purchase.

 

Finally, designers consider brands to be the aesthetic qualities associated with the product or service, such as its logo, packaging or support collateral.

 

The funny thing is that each of these professionals above seems to forget that branding is in the eye of the beholder, who is often the most important stakeholder: the customer.

 

Branding should be about the “complete experience that a customer has with a company, its products or services,” and it encompasses several levels of engagement with customers. Much like an onion, as one peels back the skin they will discover more about the brand, allowing them to connect at a more relevant and emotional level. Unlike onions, peeling back more layers won’t make your customers cry; instead, it will make them more loyal and fully engaged with the brand.

 

Brand Experience Diagram

 

The outer most layer of a brand is often the first impression that a customer will have, and it usually involves the experience with the product or service you provide. Is it of high quality and dependable? Was it easy to use, understand, and explain to others?

 

Part of the initial experience customers have with branding relates to the next layer, which is how the brand is promoted. Did the product or service work as advertised?

 

The environment in which a brand is sold or delivered is part of the brand experience. For a retail product, the packaging must communicate the value of the brand. Sometimes the store where the product is sold (think Apple) or the office in which a service is delivered is part of the brand experience. In the case of a virtual store, the online presence becomes the next layer of a brand experience.

 

It used to be that if you had a good handshake and a professional looking business card, you could meet with a prospective customer and sell them your brand. In the Internet age, this is no longer an option—your brand must have a professional web site that allows customers the opportunity to explore your product or service offering in a pressure free environment. It must be relevant to the audience, informative, provide contact information, and reinforce the other layers of branding discussed above.

 

At the core of every successful brand is its identity and brand essence. The identity is more than a logo—it includes every piece of visual and verbal communication you have with customers, from the uniforms worn by employees to the way in which the receptionist answers the phone. Finally, and most importantly, is the essence of your brand: this is the compelling story behind your product or service, and the promises that you make to customers. It is the reason they should buy your brand over any other. It must be relevant and connect at an emotional level with their desires and needs.

 

Conclusion

 

While there are differing opinions about what branding might be, “branding” truly is in the eye of the beholder. However, the beholder in this case is not the manufacturer, distributor or service provider. It’s not even the creative agency that you might hire to help promote the brand in the marketplace. The beholder is the customer—and it doesn’t matter what you think the value of your brand is; it matters what customers think, and what “they” are willing to pay for.

S.U.R.E. Steps to Successful Branding

KC Small Business Monthly Magazine logo

Product and company names should be simple, unique, relevant and effective.

By Ryan Hembree

 

 

The first impression of a branded product, service or company is its name. Successful brand names communicate unique qualities, value and benefits, while also building a positive perception that can command a premium price. In this way, brand names become differentiators that add value within a market and become a source of competitive advantage.

 

Selecting an appropriate name is one of the most important parts of building a successful brand. It also happens to be one of the most challenging. Successful brand names should be simple, unique, relevant and effectively communicate consistency to the target market.

 

1. Be Simple

 

Names should be short, sweet and to the point. Brand names can be creative, yet still simple. The trick is to be clever, not cutesy or cliché. Avoid being overly specific for a company name, as it may limit the perception of the products or services you provide.

 

Names that are too difficult to spell or pronounce—including foreign words—only complicate and frustrate customers. Mashing two or three different words together will only result in a lengthy, nonsensical identity. Shortened or abbreviated names are not desirable either. When it comes time to make a purchase decision, will the customer remember those three letters, or will they get them confused with something else?

 

Likewise, the days of alphabetically listed phone books are long gone thanks to the proliferation of Google and other online search engines, so using “AAA” as a naming convention is not only unnecessary, but looks out of date as well.

 

2. Be Unique

 

In order to stand out in a crowded industry or market, a brand must be memorable—clearly identifying the product, service or business and differentiating it from competing brands.

 

Using the names of the founders or partners of a company may seem like a way to achieve originality, however, this ties too much equity to an individual’s reputation, instead of the quality and performance of the product or service.

 

Ensure uniqueness in naming by searching the Whois database at www.internic.com to see if a potential name has been registered as a Web site (.com and .net are the most commonly registered domains). If the URL is available, chances are the name is not only distinct, but legally protectable as well. A search of the online United States Patent and Trademark Office database (http://tess2.uspto.gov) will help confirm whether there is an existing trademark.

 

3. Be Relevant

 

The more relevant to target customers within an industry, the more memorable and less generic a brand name will be. Successful names offer customers an idea about the type of product or service a company provides, or how it might be beneficial to them. Simply adding adjectives to describe the quality of the brand is not enough to connect emotionally with the customer. The goal of naming is to make a product or service more approachable for customers, thus establishing a positive affinity and loyalty to the brand.

 

4. Be Effective

 

Simplicity, uniqueness and relevance are important considerations when undertaking the challenge of developing a brand name. The key to any successful brand, however, is how effective the name is. The brand must effectively communicate consistency—consistency in the messages being communicated to the customer, the actual product or service performance and the overall customer experience and satisfaction with the brand. It won’t matter how memorable the name is if the brand fails to meet the expectations of the customer. Worse yet, it could become memorable for all the wrong reasons—and that’s not effective at all.

What’s in a brand name?

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” This line from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet reinforces the idea that the core essence of a person or thing is what matters most, not what it is called. I would argue, however, that in the branding of a product, service or organization, naming is critical to success. Brand names should be specific, distinct, and relevant in order to leave a lasting impression in the mind of the consumer.

 

Be Simple.

 

Choose a brand name that has meaning behind it, or that is specific to the type of product or industry. Avoid being overly generic. Kinko’s, named after the founder’s “kinky” red hair, soon became FedEx Kinko’s after being purchased in 2004. Not only was this a mouthful to say, it diluted the perception of the Kinko’s brand. And in 2008, when the name changed to FedEx Office, it became two generic words (how often do we say that we are going to “fedex a package”? In this manner even the corporate name has become part of our everyday vernacular). I still refer to the store as Kinko’s.

 

Another way to keep a brand name simple is to avoid names with too many syllables; that incorporate parts of many different or unrelated words; or that may be difficult to pronounce or spell (this coming from a branding firm called “Indicia”). Some companies approach naming determined to find something that can also be used as a domain for the web. Basing an entire brand strategy on whether or not a URL is available is a risky endeavor, since almost every word in the English language has already been registered as a domain name.

 

Be Unique.

 

It is important that your brand stand out and be distinct from the competition. It wasn’t too long ago that placement within the Yellow Pages guaranteed differentiation among brand names. Since phone number listings and ads appeared in alphanumeric order, brands such as “AAA this” or “ABC that“ became the norm. Now it is possible for customers to “google” products or services, making the Yellow Pages all but obsolete. The importance of a name beginning with the letter “A” is now totally irrelevant.

 

In some cases an owner or founder’s name is used for the brand. The problem is that ultimately the perception and success of the brand becomes tied to an individual, and it can be difficult to transition to new ownership or sell because of the equity that exists within the market. Many law firms (and even some advertising agencies) take this “name on the door” approach, having multiple partner names define the brand in what could be mistaken for a sentence. When the receptionist answers the phone, they must resort to identifying the company as “Law Firm,” since otherwise it would take too long (and too much breath) to say the whole name.

 

Be Memorable.

 

The more relevant and less generic a brand name, the more it will stand out among a crowded marketplace. Using initials or abbreviations for a company might sound like a good alternative to help simplify a brand’s name, but when it comes time to making a purchase decision, will the customer remember those three letters, or get them confused with something else?

 

Likewise, adjectives within a brand name that are used describe the quality or type of product or service should also be avoided. You would think that a company called “Creative Marketing” or “Creative Planning” would have a more creative name.

 

Conclusion

 

Developing a name that is simple, unique, and memorable is just the first step in creating an enduring brand. The ultimate value of a product, service or organization will be judged by its quality (“the sweetness” alluded to in Romeo and Juliet). However, a positive first impression must first be built around that brand, particularly when it comes time for a buying decision to be made from among all like-brands.

 

—Ryan Hembree, principal/brand strategy

Q&A on M&A Branding

Many companies and organizations are using the current economic downturn as an opportunity to solidify their position within the marketplace, or to expand into new areas. While much thought and planning goes into the acquisition of other companies, especially with regard to finances and operations, it is surprising that most organizations do not consider the impact it will have on branding for the combined company. After all, a strong, recognizable brand that has a loyal customer base is part of what attracted the companies together in the first place.

 

There needs to be strong consideration given prior to launching a re-brand for a merged or acquired company. First, evaluate the overall brand strategy for the new organizational structure. Are you trying to build a monolithic brand, in which all divisions and organizations fall under one umbrella name (such as General Electric or Caterpillar), or are you creating a conglomerate of brands such as Procter & Gamble or Unilever? In the latter example, P&G and Unilever own several household item brands, but the customer doesn’t necessarily know that they are part of the much larger, international organization. In this case, each of the separate brands holds greater value and brand equity than the larger organization. More often than not, sub-brands (subsidiary brands) are created to ease the transition into the larger organization.

 

Common pitfalls of branding a combined or acquired company

 

Organizations sometimes try to assimilate the smaller of the companies into their organization, even when there exists a clash of cultures and values. In order to alleviate the fears employees or customers might have about a merger or acquisition, develop a consistent brand message that addresses any misconceptions or negative perceptions. Clearly communicate what process is taking place, how it will affect the organization as a whole, and what, if any, changes there will be to the end customer in terms of product or service quality. Deliver this message through press releases, direct mailers to core customers, company newsletters to employees, and prominently display it on each company’s web site.

 

Another stumbling block to rebranding a merged or acquired company is to rush the process by assuming customers or employees will automatically embrace the change and accept the new brand freely and without reservation. This happens when the larger company tries to impose its brand name on the smaller one, even if is less known or respected by existing customers. When FedEx purchased the Kinko’s franchise, this is exactly what happened. The copy and office stores suddenly became FedEx-Kinko’s, and virtually all brand equity was eliminated. Besides being a mouthful to say, it was not as memorable or convey the same personality as the original brand name, which came about because of the founder’s kinky red hair. Now simply known as FedEx Office, the brand is stale and even more generic, and an example of monolithic branding gone awry.

 

Strategies for extending a merged or acquired Brand

 

First of all, don’t change the company name (whether the one being acquired or the acquirer) over night. This will simply confuse customers and make them question the quality of services and products they will receive. Instead, modify the brand over a period of time—the larger, or less known (the combined company), the longer the brand should take to reach its final identity.

 

Evolution over time makes more sense than a complete revolution, and there are several tactics that brand or marketing managers can take. For example, use the acquired company name with the larger organization’s logo mark, or begin to change the color palette and typography so that it matches the graphic standards of the acquiring firm. Use all company logos side by side for a while and then phase one or more of them out, or perhaps a sub-branded approach would be more appropriate.

 

Conclusion

 

While the current economy is taking its toll on all businesses, there does exist a tremendous opportunity to extend or expand your brand. Struggling companies that need capital investment or resources for continued growth are more agreeable to mergers or acquisitions. It has been proven time and again that organizations that continue to invest in marketing and branding, even during rough economic times, emerge from the downturn as stronger leaders within their industries. As you make plans to grow your business and market share, be sure to develop a sensible strategy for re-branding the organization as well.

 

—Ryan Hembree, principal/brand strategy

Social Media: Is it good for your brand?

Is it good for your brand? There has been a lot of hype over the past year or so about Social Media Marketing, and how companies are using Twitter and Facebook to reach new consumers. In addition to being able to blog from their web site, everybody wants a Facebook page and a link to follow their company on Twitter. It seems that everyone is pushing social media as the ultimate “new” way to market products, services and brands to potential customers and their friends. But do these social media tactics really work, and are they appropriate for your brand?

 

Social media marketing, in theory, is about creating a following (or “tribe”) of people who will become advocates and champions for a company’s product or services. Because of the very nature of the Web, social media marketing is “viral,” meaning that people will forward to their friends what they like or don’t like. In this manner, social media can be compared with another, more dubious kind of marketing technique, the direct sales “party,” like those used by Tupperware, Pampered Chef, Mary Kay, Amway, and many others. The idea behind those business models is that if one person likes a brand, they will tell all of their friends about it (and even go so far as invite them to a sales party where guests can “learn” all about a product and feel trapped and obligated into making a purchase).

 

What is interesting to note about all of the hype surrounding Twitter and Facebook is that nobody, it seems, can clearly demonstrate how to monetize the tactics and make it a valuable promotional vehicle for a brand. Likewise, the waning popularity of other social networking sites such as MySpace and LinkedIn seems to indicate that the use of social media is more of a fad. And according to Nielsen Online, 60%-70% of users who use Twitter one month do not return the next. This is due to the fact that currently there is very little compelling content available—right now it seems to be more of a popularity contest between Ashton Kutcher and Larry King than (how many Facebook friends or Followers do you have?). Bombarding people with advertising and marketing messages while they are updating their Facebook page or ‘tweeting’ might elicit a negative response to the brand, as people don’t want to be distracted and “sold to” all the time.

 

This is not to say that all social media is bad or not worthwhile to pursue. Quite the contrary: it clearly is a powerful communication medium that proved its relevance during the recent Iranian elections, in which the medium was one of the only ways that the rest of the world could follow the turmoil that followed (Iranian television and media is controlled by the central government). Facebook is great for reconnecting with old friends or classmates, and to share personal lives with others. Some companies have posted Facebook pages (Indicia Design included), which allow for people to become “fans” of the brand, post comments to their “wall” and link back to the company’s web site. This is an example of how to use social media in a non-intrusive way that will help build perception and goodwill about your products or services.

 

If your company sells a product (B2B or B2C), social media can be a great way to solicit feedback and offer updates or special promotions to consumers. For example, a restaurant looking to fill empty tables can blast a coupon via Twitter and reach a broad range of people, from loyal customers to their friends. A recent article in BusinessWeek (July 13, 2009) showcases how Intuit is using social media to let diehard users of QuickBooks offer support to other users of the product through an online forum…in essence, free technical support. In doing so, Intuit’s market share allegedly jumped 4% since the launch of this new online community.

 

Using social media marketing to promote a brand can be much like opening the proverbial “Pandora’s box”—and unless a company is willing to take the good with the bad, it might be wise to wait out all the hype surrounding it before investing too much time or money. Editing negative comments from a blog or Facebook wall will make the brand appear to be disingenuous. Disgruntled or former employees can post harmful or derogatory remarks (as well as company secrets), and once released into cyberspace, it is impossible to retract. Short of paying a full time person to update an online forum, web site, or Facebook page, there is really no way to monitor the information that is being communicated about your brand. And unfortunately, the law is struggling to keep up with all of the issues that might arise through the use of social media marketing and tactics.

 

There are many unknowns when it comes to the effectiveness of social media marketing. As a communication tool, it has demonstrated its power to disseminate information to the masses. As a way of soliciting immediate feedback and targeting specific users for a mass-market consumer product, it may be effective in some instances. Before diving head first into what may be shallow water, companies might be wise to invest more resources into their current web sites by providing more relevant content or ways for consumers to interact with the brand online (through forms, surveys, online communities, blogs, etc.). These are uncharted waters, and while there may be hidden treasure below the surface, there are a lot of dangers as well. And one false move or misstep into social media marketing could derail even the most beloved brands.

 

—Ryan Hembree, principal/brand strategy