By Erika Fischer
Social media has evolved as a brand communications tool.
What once was a tool for signaling relevance is increasingly a recognized media for brand building.
But how can brands be strategically built in our increasingly fragmented media world where boundaries continue to shift?
While this is an area just beginning to be explored, a few themes are beginning to arise that are critical for marketers to consider as they develop their strategies.
• Strong social media brands have personality.
Social media provides the opportunity to communicate a brand personality. A brand personality includes the human characteristics associated with brands. This phenomenon has been studied in academia by behavioral psychologist and Stanford Graduate School of Business professor Jennifer Aaker and others and recognized in industry. Brands are often a reflection of the user’s self-image, actual or aspirational. Traits will vary across brands based on positioning. And yet, some trait categories stand out in business and political contexts. For example, in recent studies, brands communicating “ruggedness” encourage higher levels of social media response, a finding supported in our recent research.
The category of “competence” builds brands’ trust and effect (Sung and Kim, 2010). Competence in branding is impactful cross-culturally and in varied contexts, corporate and political. Personified brands need to consider their unique traits and communicate accordingly. Recent studies suggest that even subtle aspects of communication such as brand tone, or sentiment, influence community engagement.
• The media may not be the message.
Marshall McLuhan’s famous observation of the role of media as a message signal in itself seems to be shifting in social media. This is likely due to the differences between visual and video-dominated social media, such as YouTube and Instagram, and microblogging, such as Twitter.
In other words, a presence on social media may not communicate by itself but rather serve a role as part of an integrated brand story.
Specific media such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram engage different audiences and yet the targeted profiles continue to shift. The platforms continue to change as well, impacting usage.
As brands grow, they will need to consider how to curate their message elements across changing platforms as well as monitor the relative strategic importance of each in communicating brand messaging.
• Brand congruence across all media and platforms is important.
Recently, some brands have gained attention due to social brand wizards that communicate in a fashion that breaks through our information-intensive world. However, short-term attention gains need to be weighed in terms of their impact on the brand.
For example, brands including SunnyD and Little Debbie tweeted about depression in the context of a boring Super Bowl game. While those behind the brand messages were likely striving for attention and timely comical relief, the messages could and were taken out of context. And there was an understandable backlash.
Social media brand messages should be considered and not diverge significantly from your strategic brand voice.
• Social branding communication ethics need to evolve.
Since social media continues to expand across communication media, marketing leaders need to consider the impact of social media on society as well as their individual target audiences.
Many thought leaders are increasingly concerned about the potential of social media for unethical levels of persuasion. When building a social media brand voice, firms need to delineate boundaries that characterize an ethical brand persona.
• Erika Fischer is a visiting professor of marketing in the School of Management at California Lutheran University.