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Crafting the Digital Brand: Social Media’s Role in Brand-Building

Anyone who has spent time in the brand space will have certainly come across Marty Neumeier's The Brand Gap - it's one of the foundational books on how to cultivate a brand, and is a must-read for any brand manager. 

The central premise of the book is that a brand is not simply a logo, identity or even product. Neither is it what you, the brand manager say it is. Rather, a "brand is a person's gut feeling about a product, service or organization.In other words, it's not what you say it is, it's what they say it is."

Branding is all about creating an emotional clarity by providing a story around what you are selling, and social media will fan the flames of those companies that live up to their brand promise, or quickly take down those that are merely selling a false idea. 

But what kind of role does social media play in crafting successful brands today? If at it's core a brand is "what they say it is," and we have more "theys" sharing their thoughts and ideas with the world, then what does that mean for how brands grow in today's marketplace?

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Let's take a look at Neumeier's five basic principle of branding, and how each idea is transformed by social media.

When setting out to launch your product or company and embark on thinking about what kind of brand you want to help shape, don't start with thinking about the website or the kind of ads you'll run. Instead, focus on how you can foster interactions with your customers. It's through those interactions with your consumers that your brand will be shaped and influenced.

The Brand Gap spells out five key disciplines about how to build a brand:

  • Differentiate
  • Collaboration
  • Innovate
  • Validate
  • Cultivate

So where to begin?

Well, just as social media has impacted marketing, customer service and public relations among others, it is influencing these five core disciplines of brand building.

Differentiate
Great brands start with great products, and that differentiation needs to continue through to delivering great customer service and attention to their needs. Some have suggested that customer service is the new marketing, and brands like FreshBooks and Zappos are setting themselves apart from the competition through not just a solid product, but through a passionate desire to build relationships with their customers.

Collaboration
Perhaps more thany any of the five principles, social media is giving companies the ability to collaborate with their customers and extended communities. It's more than just crowdsoucing for "cheap" advertising. Shops are taking it another step further and letting customers shape actual products and services. Champion's Hoodie Remix not only let's their fans design a sweatshirt and vote on the best entry, but that winning hoodie design will be added to Champion's product lineup.

Innovate
How do you know when an idea is innovative? When it scares the hell out of everybody - it's continually pushing the boundaries and trying something new without ceasing. Social media can be scary ground for some organizations, because when done well, it forces brands into an honest reckoning with their customers about who they really are.

Validate
Neumeir sees Validation as bringing the audience into the creative process, and brands that are listening first on social media platforms are going to gain the insights needed to better meet their customer's needs. Starbucks, Dell and even American Express are learning how to connect early and regularly with their customers, even in the face of the economic downturn.

Cultivate
"If the old paradigm of brand managment had been to control the look and feel of a brand, the new paradigm is to influence the character of a brand." Paul Isakson addressed this beautifully in his presentation on Modern Brand Building:

The way and speed with which people discover, process and share information has changed dramatically. Create room for agility, flexibility and iteration."

With some advertisers contemplating a massive $3 million Super Bowl ad buy this coming Sunday, one has to wonder whether a company should attempt to strengthen it's brand through a mere 30-second spot, or 365-days of continually providing the channels and platforms for developing meaningful connections with their customers.

The brand is no longer omnipresent. Consumers' response is fueled by tweaks to a brand which are fueled by more change. It's a symbiotic relationship that allows for more transparency and through that constant discussion, produces better creative and a more honest message for for both the consumer and brand.

How has your social media strategy impacted your company's brand?

For further reading, I highly recommend Paul Isakon's presentation on Modern Brand Building and David Armano's thoughts on Micro-Interactions in a 2.0 World.


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