Many people are turning hype into hyperventilation with the supposed end of marketing as we know it, thanks to the rise of social media and the shift of power to consumers. But it’s wrong to think we’re entering a world in which traditional marketing activities, and brands themselves, will become irrelevant. In fact, the opposite is true. Social media make it more urgent than ever that companies get the basics right, developing and reliably delivering on a compelling brand promise.
It has always been risky for companies to disappoint customers, at least over the long-term. But today the scale and speed of social media can make falling short instantly painful. Consider the internet fuelled backlash against Dell’s flammable laptops. By the same token, companies that consistently deliver what they promise benefit mightily when social media amplify their reputation. The obvious danger is failing to keep pace with social media developments. But an equal, less obvious danger is getting distracted by them and losing sight of the fundamentals.
The companies that will succeed in this environment are exploiting the many opportunities presented by social media while keeping an unwavering eye on their brand promise, and they are judiciously revising the marketing rulebook rather than trying to rewrite it.
Leverage Social Media Leverage
Many marketers are using social media to engage customers on-line and engaging in lively debates about their products and services. Of course, social media can also boost brand awareness, and ultimately sales, especially when a campaign goes viral. More important for most companies, however, is that through social media they can gain rich customer insights, faster than ever before.
Historically marketers used market research to find out that people thought about their products. More recently however, social networks take this a step further by providing powerful new ways to explore consumers’ lives and opinions.
Procter & Gamble was an early adopter of social media and now all its businesses have sites aimed at specific markets and communities. Its feminine care group, appreciating the need to listen to rather than talk at customers, made sure that its Beinggirl social media site was less about its products than about the tribulations of 11-to-14-year-old girls—embarrassing moments, hygiene concerns, boy troubles etc. The site’s main value to P&G is not that it drives product sales but that it illuminates the target consumers’ world. And because of that, customers identify with the brand.
Using Social Media to deal with crisis
P&G recently encountered first-hand the dark side of social media—the speed with which they can spread damaging messages. After the company introduced Dry Max technology into its Pampers product line , promising extra protection and a less bulky diaper, Rosana Shah, an angry customer whose child had developed nappy rash, created a Facebook page dedicated to putting pressure on the company to withdraw the product. Other reports of rashes and blisters followed, and within a month 7,000 parents had joined Shah’s campaign.
Confident in its product’s performance, P&G stood firm. Aided by its well-established social media network, Pampers Village, and its Pampers Facebook page, the company made its case sympathetically but clearly. It responded to all complaints, offered advice to parents, and explained why the product wouldn’t be withdrawn. Far from curbing P&G’s enthusiasm for social media, this incident helped the company hone its approach.
Toyota, too, deftly used social media as part of its crisis management during the sudden-acceleration vehicle recall. It set up a team to monitor and respond with facts to rumours on Facebook and elsewhere, and created a Twitter presence for the Chief Operating Officer, Jim Lentz. The team identified online fans and sought permission to distribute their statements through Toyota channels. Drawing on the company’s brand reputation—the reservoir of goodwill earned over decades of delivering on its promise of quality, reliability, and durability—it used social and other new media effectively to neutralize much of the hostility. By March 2010, when the recall was in full swing, Toyota sales were rebounding, with Camry and Corolla topping the list of all passenger-car sales.
Don’t rewrite the rulebook
Although any company’s decision about whether and how to use a new tool is situation-specific, all companies should incorporate social media into their marketing. But what’s the best approach?
Analysis of the strategies and performance of a diverse range of companies suggests that great brands share four fundamental qualities:
• They offer and communicate a clear, relevant customer promise.
• They build trust by delivering on that promise.
• They drive the market by continuously improving the promise.
• They seek further advantage by innovating beyond the familiar.
Virgin Atlantic Airline Case
The customer promise.
Customers expect innovation ,fun, informality, honesty, value, and a caring attitude from Virgin Atlantic Airways. This promise is reinforced at every customer touch point, from marketing materials and the call centre to travel agents and, increasingly, travel websites. Virgin scans these sites to learn what people are saying. Where there is misinformation, the company rarely has to provide a correction, because site visitors usually do so themselves.
Like other companies, Virgin uses social media to check that the brand promise is both understood and relevant. It also works to keep all its social media activities true to and in support of the brand values.
Obviously, trust is customers knowing that the Airline will get them to where they want to go and on time. But keeping customers informed when things go wrong can prevent a slip-up from becoming a trust-eroding PR disaster. Customers expect airline websites to be accurate and up-to-date. But during the volcanic-ash in 2010 Virgin Atlantic’s website couldn’t keep pace with the rapidly changing situation, so it used Facebook and Twitter to communicate with customers. This was well received by some, but Virgin Airlines learned from angry callers and site visitors that it needed to do an even better job of providing information in a crisis. The company modified its site to include a “rapid response” link to real-time Virgin Airline updates on Twitter and Facebook. It sees the various social media as complementary
For Virgin—and for most companies—the biggest social media opportunity lies in gathering insights to drive continual incremental improvements. For instance, since its founding, in 1984, Virgin Atlantic has built its brand on the customer’s total experience, from her initial search for a flight to her safe return home. The proliferation of travel blogs has reinforced this emphasis. When the company learned that its loyalty-scheme members were complaining online about tedious, redundant requests for security information, it created a secure opt-in service to eliminate the problem. In response to online-community suggestions, it launched a system to arrange taxi sharing on arrival with passengers from the same flight. None of this represents a shift in strategy: The brand promise hasn’t changed, but social media dialogue has enabled the airline to keep improving its offer.
Innovation beyond the familiar.
Virgin Atlantic Airline frequently wins awards for innovation—such as its in-flight entertainment systems and “premium economy” class. Fresh insights from social media reinforce this aspect of the brand. For instance, Facebook interactions helped the company appreciate an important but largely unrecognized segment: consumers planning a big trip. Their planning starts well in advance and involves extensive discussions with other travellers, so Virgin launched Vtravelled,a site dedicated to inspirational journeys. Customers moderate the conversation and exchange information, stories, and advice. Virgin enters the discussion using a traveller’s tone of voice, not pushing a product but offering advice. The site leads to some sales, but its main benefit to Virgin Atlantic comes from brand reinforcement and novel customer insights.
Keep Your Eye on the Ball
Virgin Airlines would not claim mastery of social media in brand building—no firm yet can. But here’s the advice:
Don’t throw out your rule book. Start with your brand promise and let it guide all your actions in social media. Don’t get distracted by the abundance of options.
Use social media primarily for insight.
Companies can and do sell things via social media, of course, but their real value lies in learning about customers. Facebook in particular has such tremendous reach that it can provide detailed quantitative analyses of communication flows between consumers.
Strive to go viral, but protect the brand.
The few brands that have substantially improved sales by using social media have done so with communications that convey authenticity and relevance—and are so entertaining that they go viral. Consider Blendtec’s inspired “Will it blend?” YouTube clips, in which Tom Dickson, the company’s founder, demonstrates its blender’s power and robustness by pulverizing everything from golf balls to an iPad. Since the campaign launched, five years ago, the videos have been viewed more than 100 million times, and sales have increased by 700%.
Engage, but follow the social rules.
Social media conversations about brands are usually unstructured and moderated by the participants themselves, using unwritten rules. People join in freely because they enjoy and learn from the discussion. Your company can also join, and to some extent influence, the conversation. Those in the company who execute its social media strategy should naturally be at home with the culture and rules of each social networks.
Ultimately, building a successful brand on-line requires that companies go back to basics. Do the right things right first for your customers.