Social Media Needs Strong Brands

Hands up if you hate the term ‘brand’. Yep. I thought so. The word originally comes from the Old Norse ‘brandr’ – the practice of stamping hot metal symbols on livestock – and the etymological whiff of brutality still lingers. Brands stink of globalized uniformity, of slick corporate coercion cloaked in a shiny logo and an uplifting tagline. And we hate them even more now we’re all supposed to be one, with our precious, unique, hydra-headed identities boiled down to a Klout score and a sexy one-line Twitter bio.

But the old-school principles of branding have never been more important. The organisations that are proving successful and resilient in the age of social media are those that have a strong sense of what their ‘brand’ means. Having worked with conglomerates and independents, blue-chips and charities, from Beirut to Birmingham, I have come to the conclusion that most social media problems are in fact branding problems instead. Teaching a marketing department how to use a #FollowFriday hashtag is not the issue. The issue, in the words of the great social media dissenter Jaron Lanier, is that “you have to be somebody before you can share yourself.”

Robert Bean has thirty years’ experience rebranding companies such as BMW, Honda, BT and Yo!Sushi . In his book Winning In Your Own Way, he explains that organizations must find the intersection between their culture, their product or service, and their reputation: what he calls their ‘single organizing principle.’ And listening to him talk at an event in London, I realised that social media terrifies many leaders exactly because it highlights the holes in their organisation’s SOP. Social media demands transparency, so if the truth under their tagline ain’t pretty, it’s quickly going to show.

One story Bean recounted involved a visit to a regional BMW dealership with the company’s CEO. Finding that the toilet was a little grubby, the CEO summoned the manager, pointed to the loo, and mused, ‘the ultimate driving machine?’ He didn’t need to say another word. The manager rushed off to solve the problem; he knew exactly what his boss meant.

It’s the equivalent of being able to point to Facebook, say ‘the ultimate driving machine,’ and trust your staff all over the world to understand exactly why and how they should connect with customers online. When it comes to social media – and indeed most things in life – a glut of rules, safeguards and processes is usually an indication of insecurity. Engaging in consumer conversation requires organisations to traduce boundaries: between departments, between on and offline spaces and between personal and professional selves. Having a simple SOP ensures consistency yet allows each individual to interpret that collective spirit in a way that suits their role, their personality and the conversation they currently need to have.

I may come from the box fresh end of the marketing discipline, but I spend well over half of my time running my own version of Robert’s branding process. Although teaching teams the technical stuff – platform best practice, content calendars, tools and tricks, timings and process – is important, it’s useless if they don’t understand the essence of exactly what it is they are representing when they engage online.

No-one following your Pinterest board? It’ll usually be because your images have nothing to distinguish them, no unique style or provocative purpose. That’s a problem with your visual identity, not a problem with your inability to ‘be social.’ What if your team has posted some inappropriate tweets? That’s a culture issue, not a ‘social media mistake.’ Or what if the quality of your Facebook pages varies wildly across different markets? You won’t solve it by trying to get every region to imitate brilliant Bulgaria, or by crafting a ten-page policy for them all to translate. Only once each one of those owners has understood and internalized your SOP, can they start to interpret it for their communities in a fluid and meaningful way.

The challenge is not just to define your SOP, but to make it spread both wide and deep, from the CMO to the intern. Leaders must show they are committed, but granular, practical action is also key. Start by building it into your rewards and incentives programme. You can throw up a thousand pretty wall vinyls, but an SOP will only really flourish once daily behaviours are being judged and reinforced accordingly.

If you’re struggling with social media, you probably need to dig deeper than you think. Make-up will only give you so much social sex appeal. You need to start with good DNA.


This article originally appeared on