Let Brands Be Brands

Hugo Boss [Brands @ Westfield shoppingmall London]
Image by Vincent Teeuwen

Why is it that we as an industry wants brands to become people and people to become brands? This manifests itself with a corporate brand online talking like a human being, but without identifying the people behind the communications. It seems like a disaster waiting to happen. When brands act like people — cursing, drinking, or making bad jokeswe pounce on them. We’re mortified for they have betrayed the behavioral norms that we expect of trusted brands.

To think that people, um, that is brands would do such things. The outrage is a result of expectations that supersede the human condition. Brands that act like people inevitably stumble.

Of course, asking people to act like brands only creates the opposite issue. Fake, shiny plastic people. Yay! But let’s not get mired in the ills of personal branding (which apparently is something our European counterparts like to make fun of when discussing American social media).

The problem with the personality conundrum is that transposing roles fails. The reality is that a brand is created by humans for humans. The brand fulfills a means to interact for a promised purpose (in theory) between people within the branded entity, and other people in or outside the organization. It is a very narrow type of communication limited to the business of the brand.

Why confuse the issue in the name of social media? There’s an old saying that half measures avail us nothing. In trying to be human, brands want to add personality to their brand palette, but in reality brands are just marketing vehicles, not people.

Personality can best be seen in a company by using the brand to highlight people within the entity. Afterall, organizations are made of and led by people. Some of the more consistent efforts online like GM Blogs and Bank of America‘s Twitter customer service take this approach, showcasing the voices behind the brand.

This, of course, requires a team approach with a greater depth of transparency which many brands haven’t become comfortable with yet… Teams are needed to counterbalance the negative effects that individual personal fame under a brand can have. Transparency is needed to trust people to identify themselves as a member of the organization. Rare is the brand management team that’s willing to do the latter, afraid of the worst case scenarios of the human condition.

Yet, when these situations occur in real life, people don’t assume that madmen engage in workplace violence or white collar crimes on behalf of the brand! On the contrary, people understand that wayward employees are really just lost souls who have crossed that terrible line we all fear. That is the dark side of the human condition.

Brand managers who cannot understand this will never be able to circumnavigate the personality conundrum. Instead they will be mired in half measures, trying to infuse personality into their brand while controlling their employees. Then when the inevitable brand failure happens serious meetings will occur to create new policies and eradicate future human outbursts.

Let brands be brands, and let people be people. By using one to highlight the other, a brand can show the human side of its company, and protect itself. In the worst cases, the brand can simply state that an employee made an error (or worse), and apologize to or reassure stakeholders. It really is that easy.

Galvanizing Your Organization to Help in a Disaster

Pre-order Geoff Livingston’s Welcome to the Fifth Estate today!


There are times when a cause campaign is not about mutual reward for brand and beneficiary, rather responsible citizenship. Disasters are such times. There’s no greater example of this than the current triple crisis of earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster in Japan. Using online tools, it’s easy to participate in charitable activities, and help situations like the Japanese crisis.

When your cause or company’s employees and stakeholders want to act and participate on the frontlines of the relief effort, there are several things you can do. Whether it’s leveraging your online community, offering financial resources or volunteering, almost every person and organization has assets to offer.

Before going too far, please ensure that the organization is motivated by a clear desire to resolve or provide relief to a devastating event. If your goal is to market or strengthen the social responsibility factor of your brand, the disaster campaign could easily achieve the opposite and tarnish your brand with an opportunistic hue (consider Spirit Airlines oil spill faux paux). Disasters are a time for social responsibility and altruism.

When the Deep Horizon oil spill occurred and companies began stepping up their response, Dawn dish soap stood out. Dawn soap products were donated as a means to clean birds, and the effort was well received publicly. The company simply publicized it was donating the products. Further Dawn’s bird cleaning ads can be considered in good taste because they had been deployed prior to the oil spill accident. In fact, because life matched brand promise, the ads were strengthened.

Here are some tips if you are considering participating in disaster relief…

Spur of the Moment


If an event happens such as the Japanese earthquake that’s so compelling it inspires you to act, the best thing to do is to affiliate with an entity that is well prepared. For example, the America Red Cross literally exists for crisis situations and its business is preparedness. If you prefer a less organized effort, consider Crisis Commons and the fantastic job they do getting coders and other techies to help out in crisis like the Sendai earthquake.

The point is that there are dozens, even hundreds of causes and organizations that prepare for such events. Rather than reinventing the wheel on the fly, find and support them in the ways that they suggest.

Many of the more experienced players have grassroots systems for you to participate in and fundraise. Further, independent fundraising platforms like Crowdrise, Razoo, Causes and Jumo allow you to set up your own social fundraising campaign autonomous of a charity’s oversight.

One of the most powerful testimonial effects of the #SxSWCares effort last weekend was its use of grassroots word of mouth power to support Japan. But it did so as an independent fundraiser for the American Red Cross. Similarly, when Google founder Eric Schmidt wanted to donate $100,000 in matching funds to Japan, he sought experienced nonprofit Citizen Effect. Lady Gaga also decided to support the Schmidt/Citizen Effect effort.

Prepare for Unfortunate Events


One of the best things a communicator can do is create a crisis communications plan for missteps and disasters. Similarly, preparation to help in advance of disaster situations makes sense. This allows the organization to literally pull a book off the shelf and follow directions or adapt them to unique situations. Network for Good was able to send attendees to SxSW AND prepare its network for recovery efforts thanks to prior planning for crisis events. As of last evening, Network for Good had raised $4.3 million for its group of earthquake causes.

With a pre-determined crisis plan, you can deploy resources in a manner that better plays to your strengths. Further, the nonprofit or company can save funds and allocate other resources for that unfortunate day in advance, ensuring impact.

For example, Google has a crisis preparedness team for disasters. The team has been actively engaged in the Japan crisis since the earthquake, using tools like Person Finder, Checkout for direct donations the Japanese Red Cross, maps via Google Earth, and news aggregation. Google’s impact is significant and helpful, using its tools and networks to ease the situation as best as it can.

The questions you have to ask is how the organization can best assist in a time of need and how much is it willing to give. From there building a plan becomes easier.

Free Agent Experimentation

Taylor Anderson

Many organizations and people feel like they can do more than the current authorities and causes involved. Or they feel inspired to use tools in an unthought of way. Whether it’s an independent fundraiser or a new tool, this is the heart of innovation. If innovation can possibly make a difference it only makes sense to engage.

Two recent examples, include Kira Siddall deploying widespread Twitter networks to find Taylor Anderson in Japan, and the MIT Media Lab’s use of hot air balloons to document the oil spill. Further, technological innovation can seed breakthrough applications, including unique Uhsahidi map deployments, Google People Finder, and several tools developed by Crisis Commons. In times of crisis, inspiration can save lives and make a big impact.

Becoming the Fifth Estate

Inner Hall in Blue

The following is draft material for my next book, Welcome to the Fifth Estate (the follow up to Now Is Gone, which is almost out of print). Comments may be used in the final edition. You can download the first drafted chapter of the new edition — Welcome to the Fifth Estate — for free.

In the past, media relations operations in organizations took a top down messaging approach towards communications. Only assigned spokespeople could talk to the media or in public on behalf of a company or nonprofit. Advertising and other forms of public outreach were the domain of the communications staff.

Now, online social networks create a world exists where mass media approaches no longer work. These approaches increasingly fall on deaf ears. With less traditional media and more disparate sources, stakeholders increasingly resist the usual corporate communications efforts. As Greg Verdino has so well stated in his new book MicroMarketing, it’s an era of micromedia, which in turn requires micromarketing.

Many, many organizations have tried to engage in social media over the past five years with mixed to poor results. Invariably, the inability to embrace conversational marketing necessary for social success roots itself in cultural processes from the past.

Industrial era structures and their departments with almost absolute domain over their subject areas cripple online efforts. Consider legal and executive approvals, command and control methods towards communications, IT department controls over Internet usage and software. By the time, an organization offers an approved communication with its stakeholders (if it even gets out of the enterprise), the effort offers little relevance or conversation that interests Fifth Estate members.

To be effective, an organization has to transform its culture to nimbly participate in social media communities. It has to undergo several changes, the first of which is to change its approach towards communicating. A top down messaging approach does not work.

Instead, an organization needs to become a community member, literally a part of the Fifth Estate. It may be tough for executives and communicators to swallow this concept. But in reality, while an organization may seem like it doesn’t need to take this step to be successful, the Fifth Estate already exists within its walls! As the Air Force so aptly puts it, every Airman Is a Communicator. The sooner companies and nonprofits embrace social, not just as a communications tool, but as a factual reality that permeates its very culture.

This community-centric approach to communicating in social networks involves a commitment to having real conversations, creating social media policy across the organization so that online conversations can occur freely, and developing an embedded journalistic approach towards providing information. By building relationships with individual members of the community, and offering factual, quality and relevant information, organizations become intrinsic members of the Fifth Estate.

Get Networked!

@digiphile and @scobleizer Talk as #crisisdata Attendees Arrive

Consider how the American Red Cross (ARC) approached its effort to evolve emergency social data communications during a crisis (full disclosure: I worked on this project). Rather than issue a press release, ARC’s executive and communications team asked 150 community members to participate in a conference in person, and thousands participated virtually. It published blog posts and research to provide information in advance of the conference, and is taking community input on a wiki and through roundtables to evolve emergency responders approaches to social media requests for help.

While this effort is still in process, it’s an example of embracing and becoming a part of the Fifth Estate. ARC participates within a larger conversational ecosystem.

But to get there, ARC had to more than just have the right attitude. It has evolved its culture significantly over several years (In fact, the organization’s social media successes were featured as a case study in my last book, Now Is Gone).

My business partner Beth Kanter calls this cultural shift becoming Networked. Instead of simply launching a campaign or an initiative, turning the focus inwards and examining cultural barriers first can yield much greater success. Optimizing processes, creating policies, and allocating resources to better approach social media creates the roadmap to becoming an effective networked member of the Fifth Estate.