(Or alternate title: Let go of your brand. You were never in control in the first place.)
Behaviour on the web has changed
By now many companies and organisations would agree that the advent of social media has fundamentally changed the way people feel, think, and learn about their brands. It has been a shocking experience for some to hear what people really have to say about their performance, or lack thereof. After all, bad reputation spreads a long way and unhappy “customers” can unleash a lot of havoc. This raises the question, who is truly in CONTROL of your brand?
A decade ago information search ruled the web, but it has now relinquished it's power to social behaviour. What has been brewing in society for a long time, is now becoming more evident. People are increasingly looking to bond with others that share a common passion or interest. Their diverse tribal identities is having a huge impact on defining who they are.
Why? Why? Why?
Consultants will gladly educate companies about the benefits of social media, and also give hands on advice. However they will rarely give any deeper insights about why people do, the things they do, with a brand. Without understanding why people value your brand, then how can you unleash it's full potential? When reasons are given you will find that they are often unsatisfactory and simply re-cycling ancient brand ideas. To put it short. Tools and vocabulary has changed, but it's still the same antiques lying beneath a shiny hood.
It's kind of scary isn't it? We acknowledge that the world has changed, that people are increasingly social and participative, but we still use thinking that stems from the industrial age.
The dominating thinking on brands is still “mind share branding” often salted with common wisdom about how we value authentic relationships. Mind share branding, in it's most simplistic form, teaches us that companies can “own” real estate in peoples' brains. This treasured estate consists of the distinct and relevant associations that individuals make with a brand.
You can understand how the idea of brand managers acting as mind surgeons on passive drones made sense in the age of mass communication, but how these ideas get intermingled with the social web of today beats me. These ideas are actually quite demeaning and belittling of people.
From brand associations to brand meaning
While mind-share branding has continued to conquer marketing literature, and become common know-how, deeper understanding about human behaviour has been made through sociology and anthropology. Think about it. It actually makes sense to broaden our influences from psychology to sciences that talk about interaction between humans.
According to these other fields the alternative, or complement if you wish, to brand associations is the construction of meaning. If you proclaim to own the brand associations “cool” and “premium”, what does that mean? Why are those associations meaningful? What does it mean to live in Tuscany and wear a pair of “cool” jeans?
If you don't know what your brand means, then your brand definition is probably too shallow. Understanding meaning is the same as understanding what motivates people to engage with and value your brand. Meaning is important. It is the stuff we are made of. In our time people use brands as raw materials to construct themselves and connect to others.
Building a meaningful brand becomes less about being a mind surgeon, and more about becoming a cultural catalyst or adapter. Rather than owning timeless associations that transcend history and culture, meaning is constantly shifting. What's more is that meaning is not the result of one-sided orchestration, it is co-authored. The company is only one voice, amongst many, that is impacting the meaning of it's brand.
The notion that successful brand managers are in full control of their brand is flawed, because they have never been. Unless their brand was unheard of course. A successful brand is not the result of “owning” or “orchestrating” brand associations, but in inviting people to co-produce value by sharing meaningful stories and experiences.
It's not a shouting contest, it's a dance. Brands that invite people to co-create meaning will find that some of their biggest fans are multipliers of value. Others may find ways to build tribes centred around their brands (AKA brand communities). The advice is basically to relinquish a bit of control to regain it. Keep in mind that your brand is not an end, it is a means that people use to tailor their lives.
It takes (at least) two to tango.