Do you need a brand strategy on the social web ?

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Summary : the presence of brands on the internet is a major concern for businesses entering the social web. But there’s a big difference between thinking and definining oneself as a brand and an ogranization. A brand is the expression of an identity while the organization is rather an action driven approach to customer service. Both should come together but, unfortunately, the social channel is often owned by the people in charge of one of these two approaches at the cost of the other. As recent surveus show, customers, even if they appreciate appearances, often prefer to value the execution of the promise. It’s time for organization approaches to replace brand strategues on the web.

Every time a new platform or service is launched on the web, the first question that comes is “how to make brands exist there.”. From a personal standpoint, as an internaut, I find it exasperating. I don’t want to rub shoulders with a brand or to become “friend” with it, most of all when it corrupts the system. You may retort me that I sometimes interact with brands and appreciate it. In fact I appreciate these interactions as long as it helps me to satisfy one of my needs. According to what I see, the more a business acts like an organization and less as a brand the more it succeeds at satisfying my needs. And, according to reports I mentioned in a previous post, it seems that I’m not the only one who thinks this way.
What is the difference between a brand and an organization ? And what are the deep consequences of the differences between a brand oriented approach and an organization oriented one ?

A brand is a matter of identity. “This is who /what I am, what I embody, my image”. Having a brand strategy is unavoidable when we see how much time we’re spending online and to what extent our online experiences impact our lives and decisions. Brands have to be known, have to let people discover and know them better, deliver a message that’s better understood when carried by conversations instead of declaration. So, having an online brand strategy is vital. But not enough. The post I mentioned above clearly shows that internauts, contrary to received ideas, don’t value neither social conversations with brands nor being part of a brand community. They want concrete and operational outputs.

For instance, let’s consider a clothing business. It can hire a kind of muse that will embody and carry the brand, make people buy its products. But if the product has a poor quality or when it need some cleaning, I not sure that asking the muse will be of any help. Not because the muse won’t want to help, but only because it’s not her job.

Another example. Everybody knows that I appreciate KLM a lot. Of course, they have a very good brand strategy but this is not the reason why I began to watch them and pay attention to what they were doing. It all started because of their effective organization strategy that once turned what could have a nightmare into a nice travel experience. Without excellence in customer service, brand strategy has little value and may even be counterproductive.

Even if it looks like twisting the knife in the wound and remember of times that are, fortunately, over, this old post about a “complicated” travel is meaningful. Even if things are of course more complex than they look and deserve a deeper analysis, let’s say that at this time KLM had both an organization and a brand strategy while Air France was rather thinking in terms of brand (Fortunately they learned the lesson quite well since then…and even got a reward that shows how fast they listened and improved). Have also a look on this article about businesses not answering their customers on Facebook. There many ways to explain the situation but, if you follow my thoughts, it’s clear that the difference between businesses that answer their customers the most (telcos and airlines) and those that are the least responsive (all the others, most of all media and fashion…) comes from the fact some have brand strategies and others “organization” approaches.

So, what do I call an organization approach or strategy ? That’s, in addition (and even before) to saying “I’m showing off and let people know me”, to say “I act and I deliver”. What’s the consequences for businesses ? That between designing a communication plan and empowering employees to serve customers through social channels there’s a world of differences. That it needs specific processes, an empowerment approach…and does not involve the same people so the channel has to be shared with many departments. It’s not about saying that one approach is better than the other but that both have to be done. But the corporate obsession for shiny approaches, marketing departments taking possession of the service field (just have a look at who gets the budgets for web projects and guess if it will improve the the quality of service…) make businesses overlook a whole part of the problematic. One more evidence that we’re far from a global and organizational vision of online business activities and that social media are still a goal rather than a means (on this point you’d like to read this excellent post by Gregory Pouy [in french] or mine on window dressing social media strategies).

Customers may enjoy having a social relationship with a brand but what they’ll value will be a relationship with an organization designed for service and ready to do it.

In short, businesses will often be told to show themselves on the web, to behave like a brand. But allocating too much energy to the parade and not enough to service and delivering what they promised may be dangerous. Moreover, acting and servicing online is the best way to built one’s reputation by the example. That’s, for example, what Best Buy did by building its brand online not through a brand approach but by excelling at servicing its customers in a public and visible way.

So the question is simple. Do you think that showing off is a sustainable alternative to action ? One thing is sure, one can show off by acting but seldom act by showing off.