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Brand Control to Major Tom: The New Rules of Brand Management

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Yes, the new age of extreme participation is a challenge for brand managers. No, you haven't lost control.

The notion that you can manage your brand by making and distributing messages and materials that you want "out there" is becoming quaint.

Rather, now, monologues need to be replaced by dialogues; formal market research needs to be paired with attentive listening; "advice" is offered round the clock; participation in social media is now table stakes; and customers and prospects who have always trusted friends to help them make decisions often have a huge network they can carry around with them to consult.

What you plan and execute from headquarters can be either reinforced or undermined by what you don't plan and execute. Transparency is no longer an elective. And anyone can create a brouhaha (some 6.6 million people viewed the YouTube video of United Airlines' mishandling of  Dave Carroll's guitar, and many more people know the story); or, conversely, anyone can give you a "brand gift"—the same incident viewed from Carroll's brand-view.

Your brand is now clearly owned by your constituents (though that has always been true)—and you're the brand steward. What's in their heads and hearts—what they've internalized and what they expect and express—is your brand.


Being the brand steward, with some but not all the levers within reach, has many brand "managers" wringing their hands: "We've lost control; we're at the mercy of—well, everyone!"

Not quite. While certainly some control is ceded in our new participatory environment, it is given in exchange for (potentially) much more engaged constituencies; for the possibility of having a huge (unpaid) corps of advocates; for data and learning that can advance your enterprise.

And you—brand manager—can control more than you think of this new, shared enterprise. Furthermore, you can influence what you can't control.

Getting Started

Be clear internally. If you're to take on shaping a brand discourse that you only partly control, it's important that the part you do control be on firm footings. Solidify your mission, vision, attributes you want paired with you, and desired position in the competitive landscape; also, agree on which constituent groups are important, and know what you'd like them to think and do.

Get your story straight, simple—and portable. In pre-videogame days, some of us played the game of "telephone." A bunch of kids in a line whispered a message, one to the next, and amusement was directly proportional to how transformed (and ridiculous) those initial words became. Our ascendant culture of "sharing" poses similar risks. Distill your main message to its irreducible, indestructible, memorable core—and get it out there. Make it easy for people to share what you want share (think, "Ford isn't like the other two").

Identify different "ways in" for different constituent groups and craft messages that are meaningful to them. Everyone doesn't care about everything; you achieve resonance when people care deeply about some part of your offering and story. Through research and listening, communicate to people what they care about.

Appeal to a higher power. Prospective brand advocates proselytize for what reinforces their sense of "personal brand." To the extent that you can honestly connect to a vision that people can emotionally connect with, you'll get longer, deeper, loyalty… and the tweets, texts, and posts you want. Forty years ago, Tom's of Maine evolved a huge corps of ambassadors by coming up with toothpaste people could care about; today, Method and Mrs. Meyer's give people reasons to buy—and recommend—household cleaning products that they can believe in.

Design (consistently) to differentiate. Given the ever-widening array of communications you control, the spread of those you don't, and the threat of brand diffusion, designing to differentiate is an imperative. And although at one time your logo anchored "corporate identity," today's wide range of communications across media needs to be unified though a comprehensive approach to type, color, imagery, design—even time and movement. Those are levers you control. And a shared visual language provides needed glue to connect your blogs, Twitter profiles, and other social media outposts to your brand.

Next Steps

With those foundational elements in place, you're ready to take on the brand new brand world.

Unflaggingly supply vision and context through the different media you can control. Think of your brand as a mosaic, made up of "tiles" that you place and tiles placed by others. While you can't control all the pieces, you can outline and execute your brand vision and place enough tiles so that the edges of the ones you place influence how the tiles you don't place are perceived. Without benefit of the positive context you promulgate—verbally and visually—any rogue or negative story is the story.

Foster dialogue, really. People will talk, so it's far better if as many conversations as possible are within earshot. If people are going to bitch, wouldn't you rather hear it firsthand, before it shows up elsewhere? Being a welcoming host goes a long way toward decreasing negative volume levels. Through social media channels, opportunities built into specific campaigns, calls that come in, and through your website, listen and learn—and, ideally, respond, and do something with this data to improve your offerings and steer your brand. Set up listening posts through RSS readers and tune into the conversations. You can't participate if you're not tuned in! And two-way communications are now expected: If you're out to build relationships, and not just rack up transactions, demonstrating that you're an enthusiastic participant in a shared journey is required.

Be transparent—or, at least, translucent. You can run, but you can't hide. Every organization has some information it would rather not have circulating, but giving it voice goes a long way toward diffusing its impact. Lance Armstrong pedaled into the camera and said, "Sure, I've been accused of doping," thereby eliminating that as a topic for others to swoop in with. By contrast, Tiger Woods hurt his brand by holing up behind his gates and letting the rumor mill rev up to redline. Negatives can also be flipped to be positives. Think brand judo: A performing arts school that had substandard facilities got considerable traction in a campaign by touting, "If we can turn out great dancers even though they have to train around poles in the center of cramped quarters, imagine how our students could soar if they had great facilities?" Transparency also goes a long way toward demonstrating honesty, which, in turn, fosters trust—a driver of loyalty, personal connection, positive recommendations, and decisions in your favor.

Put energy into the pre- and post-box experience. Years ago, brand managers learned that the experience delivered after the box was opened was a powerful driver of both repeat business and recommendations. If you sold a great product, but the consumer couldn't unpack it, couldn't fathom the manual translated loosely from Mandarin, and couldn't get any help from the "help line," the product was no longer so great. Now, people have the opportunity to experience how it is to interact with you before they get to the "box." So if your website is hard to navigate, if the needed information is missing, if your social media personas don't behave in a way that reinforces the vision and value of what you're offering—and don't sync up with the prospect's personal brand image—there could be a full stop.

Engage your organization. Everyone communicates, either formally or informally. Your colleagues beyond the marketing, sales, or development departments—including board members—can be a useful ambassadorial corps if they have the thinking and tools to start and advance dialogues. Make sure that staff understands the strategies of your organization and brand: the main messages you want out there, misperceptions to dispel, answers to tough questions. They can't help if they're in the dark. And devise social media participation guidelines appropriate to your organization; encourage participation that advances the enterprise and gives people a role (and pride) in its success.

Move forward, step back and evaluate, proceed. Brand management today is a very dynamic process. It's not an event; you can't set it and forget it. It requires active participation: listening, learning, creating, implementing, more learning, revising. That said, no strategy succeeds overnight, and zigzag changes in strategy (because you did learn this or that just yesterday) amounts to no strategy. So while you do want to engage others inside and outside your organization, you also need to have conviction in, and the strength to stay with, a strategy for long enough to really evaluate it.

* * *

It's a new era in brand development and management—with new tools, new channels, new expectations, new rules of engagement, new collaborators. And even though it's an enterprise shared with those outside your organization—and even though you don't have control of all the brand levers you might have once had—much of what you know about creating interest, understanding, participation, trust, and relationships still applies.

You can be the planner, chief contributor, and steward of your brand mosaic. You can supply the context that will influence how other, outside efforts are viewed. You can evolve and promulgate memorable, portable messages that make it easy for people to share what you'd like shared—and develop a visual system that supplies the glue needed to connect communications across media and, ideally, afford a connection between what you generate and what others might create.

You can identify "ways in" for different constituencies—and talk with them in a voice that resonates. You can actively foster dialogue so that you can both learn and ensure that you're not excluded from too many conversations. And you can champion the notion within your organization that brand value cannot be built without operational excellence: If your messages and materials tout one thing and the delivered experience—as people are getting to know you or well into a relationship—differs significantly from it, what people experience will drive what they think, share, and do.

Most importantly, rather than being afraid of what other people are saying and doing, you can engage the attention, energy, and (one hopes) pride and goodwill of those within and outside your organization to collaboratively build a brand that's valued and valuable.


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Roger Sametz is president and lead strategist of Sametz Blackstone Associates (www.sametz.com), a Boston-based, brand-focused communications practice that integrates strategy, design, and digital media to help mission-driven organizations navigate change. He can be reached at roger@sametz.com or 617-266-8577.

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  • by Andy Wright Wed Dec 16, 2009 via web

    Great post. I agree with pretty much everything. However, I'm not sure we're handing more control to consumers. They have the same amount of control as before and if anything we have more.

    What social media, online reviews and blogs have given to consumers is a voice on a global scale. The dialogue is absolutely the opportunity. But our opportunity to hear what they're saying about their feelings, experiences and recommendations actually gives us greater power to act and react - in effect giving us more control. Before, these conversations still happened, but locally and without our knowing. Now, as brand owners, we can do something about it.
    I've just given my opinion on this at brandhabits.net.

    Thanks for the article Roger...

  • by Lou Wed Dec 16, 2009 via web

    Good article. Thanks. But, um, it wasn't Tom Paxton and it wasn't his guitar...and there are probably 6 million or so people who'd likely spot that mistake. Most of them won't be reading this article though, lucky for you.

  • by Vahe Thu Dec 17, 2009 via web

    Thanks, Lou. You are so right. We missed that... even though we've run our share of articles on the subject (including this one: http://www.marketingprofs.com/short-articles/1247/stay-and-play-ok). Article's now corrected...

    --Vahe Habeshian (director of publications at 'profs)

  • by Jann Fri Jan 27, 2012 via web

    Excellent overview. Glad to see that you covered the importance of employee engagement. And in the area of control, the fact that you can generally learn a great deal from monitoring the areas you can't control, and sometimes use it to strong advantage. Fixing a mistake can garner more loyalty that doing ir right (and unnoticed) which is weird, but true. One thing I'd add: branding is never over. It's requires an ongoing commitment to monitor and maximize.

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