The following post is adapted from The Social Life of Brands, an article published in June in the management magazine strategy+business. It was co-written with Mary Beth McEuen, vice president and executive director of the Maritz Institute, and Emily Falk, an assistant professor of communication studies and psychology at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
Every form of interaction between companies and consumers—taking place online and offline, in stores, and over mobile devices—is shaped by the social nature of brands. Today, because of the exponential growth in social media, these conversations among consumers and between consumers and brands are more visible. Managing these connections at every scale, from individual contact to millions of people, is the fundamental task of marketing today.
A growing body of research from social psychology, behavioral economics, and neuroscience shows that the context of a community deeply influences how people interpret their experiences, and shapes their willingness to have an authentic relationship with a brand, rather than just engage in a transaction. Similarly, how people take in and interpret information has a direct impact on brand loyalty.
This requires marketers to employ a more relationship-driven approach that better taps into the social life of brands. Four tenets guide this new way of marketing: Simply follow the RULE and Reframe, Understand, Listen, and Engage.
Reframe: Focus on the whole person
Design marketing programs that connect with the consumer as a whole person, including all the drives that influence his or her behavior. In their book Driven: How Human Nature Shapes Our Choices (Jossey-Bass, 2002), Paul R. Lawrence and Nitin Nohria show that people are motivated and make choices as a result of four innate drives: the drive to acquire possessions and status; the drive to bond and relate with others; the drive to learn and understand the world; and the drive to defend what they consider important.
Kimberly-Clark engaged all four motivational drives in its Potty Project campaign, which was created for Huggies Pull-Ups training pants. The company launched a website with instructional videos, featuring a community of parents learning together. The amount of material shared among friends exceeded the project’s target by 400 percent.
Understand: Align to consumers’ values
Explicitly connect your brand to fundamental human values. In a study of 50,000 brands, former Procter & Gamble global marketing officer Jim Stengel found that those that grew the most over a 10-year period explicitly connected to fundamental human values such as joy, connection with other people, exploration, pride, and societal improvement.
When people engage in brand experiences that activate values that are priorities to them, they may be more likely to identify with the brand and develop an emotional connection with it. For example, a recent highly successful Starbucks program connected perceptions of the chain with the values of universalism and benevolence by encouraging consumers to take action related to an issue (e.g., voting, recycling) and to share their experience with their friends and family.
Listen: Deepen consumer insight
Build keen consumer insight capabilities that enable you to make sense of feedback, respond effectively, and go beyond what consumers say to better understand their emotional experience with your brand.
For example, global manufacturer 3M Company gathers data from social sentiment that it provokes with the Bazaarvoice platform and uses that data in both marketing and R&D. It has collected thousands of reviews and comments from more than a dozen retail sites and mobile apps, as well as Facebook postings, using them to improve marketing campaigns or create new ones. In one case, the company’s Precision Ultra Edge nonstick scissors were selling below expectations. 3M changed its product copy, quoting the language consumers used online, which led to a dramatic improvement in product sales.
Engage: Humanize touch points
Enlist the entire company—not just marketing and advertising—to take part in relationship strengthening and brand advocacy. Consumers are looking for authenticity, and companies can only “walk the talk” by creating cultures where brand values are expressed every day. This can require broad-based cultural change within your company, but the right cultural initiatives, training programs, and incentive structures can turn the actions of frontline employees—the most visible part of the organization—into a critical component of the brand experience.
Embassy Suites Hotels has built a culture focused on the creation of a socially rewarding brand experience. Its service statement is “Gracious, engaging and caring…making a difference in the lives of others—in ways both big and small.” The ongoing culture initiative, “Make a Difference,” encompasses several programs that influence the behavior of employees, other stakeholders, and guests. For example, new team members are introduced to The Deal—a booklet that outlines goals, expectations, behaviors, and “secrets to success” that catalyze the distinctive Embassy Suites brand experience. This attention has paid off; in 2011, Embassy Suites took the top spot in the J.D. Power and Associates annual North American Hotel Guest Satisfaction Index Study in its category.
Many marketers—and some consumers—may wonder how far companies should go in pursuing brand-to-consumer relationships and empowering consumers to share details with one another about their brand experiences. But social engagement is unavoidable. Moreover, the social life of a brand can be an integrative force for a more holistic approach to marketing, in which companies build long-term, multifaceted, and fruitful relationships with the people who identify with their brand ideals and choose to buy and advocate on behalf of their products and services. What are you waiting for?