November 1, 2007

What is your brand's narrative?

“Your brand is not your corporate identity. Your brand is the stories, messages, experiences that your consumers have around your brand. Yes, we label it with a logo, but it means very little if there are no stories to back it up.” This is the view of social media expert Mike Stopforth of Cerebra, speaking on online reputation management at the Digital Branding conference by Knowledge Resources in Johannesburg, 30 October 2007.

What marketers need to realise is that social media and social networks is all about networked communities: communities of people with similar interests who gather to share information and stuff. The point about these communities is that they include your customers and they are very powerful indeed as they trust their peers and friends more than obvious marketing messages.

Stopforth says consumers are now participants in a brand – they want to be involved and have gone from being consumers to ‘prosumers'.

Allen Kent of Thinking Viral agrees: “Social media is about the tools of the new generation. Advertisers are no longer in control of their brands.”The power has shifted from brands to their consumers.

And if you're still not convinced, have a look at these stats – these are your new consumers – local research undertaken by Thinking Viral has shown that the life of a 12 – 24 year old looks something like this:

1. They will never read a newspaper.
2. They will never own a landline phone.
3. They are tired of watching TV on someone else's schedule: they are getting used to
4. PVR / Tivo or downloading their favourite TV show episodes from the Internet.
5. Community is the centre of their Internet experience: 87% surveyed already have a social networking page; 50% of those surveyed are on MySpace; 82% are on Facebook, with 60 – 70 contacts and over 50% have over 100 ‘friends' listed on Facebook.
6. They trust unknown peers more than the experts.
7. They have little interest in the information source. So much info is being pushed – they are using online aggregator tools to receive and filter their content. They are using RSS to read the news.
8. They can consume 5.4 different media channels at the same time.
9. Most importantly: they want to be heard.

Becoming relevant
So how and where do marketers become relevant again? Kent says it's got to do with what you do and mostly, what other people say about you. “Classic advertising is about storytelling. But today, people want to be involved: they demand participation. Therefore make the story relevant to them.”The most common questions marketers ask, says Stopforth, are:

1. Should we blog?
2. What do we populate it with?
3. What do we do when it goes wrong?

Stopforth says blogging is not for everyone. “Unless you are going to blog with real intent with an established strategy and engage directly with your consumers, then don't do it!”

But you have to realise that your customers certainly are online and blogging. So, if you're not going to be proactive about initiating a digital presence, then at least have a reactive strategy, Stopforth advises.

“The reactive space is about managing your online reputation: online reputation management (ORM). There is too much of a possibility that you will be mentioned online somewhere. And what then? How do you respond? You have to have some sort of strategy in place to act.

”Stopforth explains that ORM is about tracking social media tools to get a sense of when and where you and your brand and your competitor brand is being mentioned online. You can start yourself by setting up a Google alert, for example, for your brand name.

The issue goes much deeper, however, says Stopforth. “I think we need a new measurement as marketers: yes, there's RAMS, AMPS and cramps… but there is nothing to measure social influence.”

There is a disconnect between the LSMs (living standards measures) and what consumers are saying on the blogosphere, he says. Those social influencers that Stopforth is describing are often unemployed students raving or ranting on about your brand that they may not even own and can't necessarily afford.

So how do you find them? “You don't – they find you,” Stopforth emphasises.

Making it work online
So then, how do you make it work for your brand online? Stopforth advises:

1. Be authentic and transparent. Don't be a persona online, Samsung's ‘Sam' blog – was slated by the blogosphere. Consumers are yearning for real brands. Samsung's latest, professional page is better to connect with their consumers, Stopforth says.
2. Have content with a call to action to augment campaigns. Make sure there is a call to action.
3. Win trust: get your hands dirty. Invest in the network. There are real word activities to enable brands to engage with those social influencers, such as the 27dinners in South Africa, the recent podcamp, and so on.
4. Respond and respond in time. You can take anything and turn it into a marketing opportunity, even those who are maliciously trying to damage your brand, Stopforth believes.
5. Give users power. If they have shown to have an interest in your brand, then support them. Identify brand champions. The best example of this are the Wikipedia champions which keep the online encyclopedia uptodate. If you give people something to believe in, they will actively champion your brands.

The tough questions that marketers have to grapple with include the following, Stopforth has found in his own contact with corporate South Africa:

- Vulnerability. It's not a word we associate with corporate SA.
- What if people say bad things? First off, people are already saying bad things about your brand, so would you rather they say it to you or behind your back?
- Will it make money? (Good ol' ROI?) No, there is no ROI for blogging. But it is a fantastic way to make money indirectly in building brand loyalty. There is a conversation going on anyways, so you need to ask ‘how do we connect with that conversation and leverage it for our own good?'.
- Can I trust my employees? (ie, banning Facebook from workplaces) You trust your employees to make million dollar deals at work and interact with clients and represent your brand daily, but not to manage their personal time? Stopforth makes an important point.
- 'Why can't my agency do it?' is a common question asked by marketers. They can and they should. You need to be encouraging your agency to push the boundaries in this regard, says Stopforth.

Achieving online brand success

Kent's seven rules for online success for marketers are:

1. Collaborate, co-create. They're out there, they are talking about the brand, use it.
2. Be relevant and connect with people. Relevance is key to motivating participation and involvement. Understand how people are creating content and engaging with content on the internet. Close to home, Engen with its ‘Endless Summer' campaign on MXit over the summer holidays targeted its future consumers in the 11 – 18 year market with a campaign which included branded Engen chat rooms on MXit with passwords for free content to share with their friends available at Engen stops on major holiday routes. It had three million messages going through its chat room…
3. Be transparent. (Don't be exposed for ‘flogs'– fake corporate blogs – your consumer will find you out and ridicule you on the Internet. There are plenty of examples from brands such as Sony PSP and Walmart who got their fingers burned here.)
4. Provide exclusivity/recognition: in communities a hierarchy exists and knowledge is power. Sharing is the new high so collaborate with uploaders of content, the bloggers. Example: the Nike website on running allows runners to track their progress, interact with other runners. It doesn't necessarily promote the brand Nike directly, but has built a very loyal following of users on its site.
5. Allow participation – let go! Traditional marketing rules no longer apply. You have to let your consumer play with your content, change it, and do what he wants with it.
6. Intrigue, inspire, entertain, surprise! Create something people want to send on to their friends.
7. Make it easy to share: plan a sharing strategy, work out the platforms to push the idea out. It is usually far easier to create an idea worth spreading than it is to spread an idea not worth spreading.

Kent's last word is: if you have a cool media idea, create context and content across as many touchpoints as you can, including the traditional media.

See also:
- Brands ‘fear' their consumers [article]
- [Digital branding] The big deal about social media for marketers [blog]
- [Digital branding] Consumers can break your brand [blog]
- [Digital branding] Answering marketer's questions [blog]

More by Louise Marsland

- Brands ‘fear' their consumers - 31 Oct 2007
- What is your brand's narrative? - 31 Oct 2007
- New insight into future ‘township' markets - 22 Oct 2007
- ABC objects to ‘spurious‘ criticism - 10 Oct 2007
- Media24: profit and performance pressure cooker - 5 Oct 2007More...

Louise Marsland is editor and editorial director of She has worked as a journalist and editor in South Africa for the past 19 years across newspapers, magazines, online and in media / communications strategy, notably: The Star; Saturday Star; Progressive Retailing (editor); Retailing Africa (managing editor); Executive Business Brief (editor); Decorex Cape (editor & publisher); FMCG Files ezine (editor); Communicate ezine (editor); and Marketing Mix (editor & business manager), including the Marketer's Guide to Africa and the annual Media Owners' Marketing Awards (MOMA). She is currently in the third year of her M Com: Strategy & Organisational Dynamics.

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