Ad-dendum: Unshackle the brand to win

Written by naresh Gupta | Updated: Jul 8 2014, 06:52am hrs
Astand-up comedian and a travel website cannot be the best teachers of marketing practice in todays day and age, especially since the stand-up comedian is not a movie personality and the website is not a heritage marketing company. Yet the two may hold lessons on how marketing and communication will need to evolve in the coming days.

Conventionally, marketing is about controlling the stimulus. Brands spend an enormous amount of time, resources and effort to own onespecific benefit in the minds of consumers. This benefit, once identified, is reinvented again and again so that competing brands cannot encroach upon their territory. The entire messaging strategy is crafted to ensure that one benefit that the brand owns is singularly communicated across all mediums. The conventional messaging strategy has always been a monologue. The entire media is planned to be intrusive. The brand says what it wants to say all the time and rarely is affected by what the consumers say or feel. The benefit of this model is complete control on messaging that the brand has on what it says, to whom it says and when it says. This control over the message has been the cornerstone of marketing ever since it was invented.

This has started to change with the advent of social media. What was called word of mouth has become word of mouse today. Brands have woken up to the power of the mouse and have started to use social media actively, but the desire to control the message is still there.

Despite the need for real time conversation with fans and followers, brands have remained shackled, very few have truly broken the mould to have honest, open, free-flowing conversation with their fans.

This is where the stand-up comedian and the travel portal have shown the way. This is what happened: One intemperate foul-mouthed politician in his campaign rally spoke about wanting to deport all the non-supporters to one of our not-so-friendly neighbouring countries.

As it happens, such campaign speeches lead to a series of conversations on social media. In one such tweet the comedian (@gkhamba) sent to a travel site, he asked, Are you offering in infidel packages group enquiry, please revert. The responding tweet that was sent out by the travel site was brilliant, because normally a brand in the control conversation mode would never respond like this.

Already overbooked, business has been good today. Though we may start some charters given the sudden rise in demand was its reply. Not surprisingly, the social media lapped up this conversation. The site acknowledged that the tweet exchange was definitely not staged. Now this happened in real time; was not couched in corporate speak and did the brand a world of good.

This is very similar to American Airlines and the search of a co-passenger that went viral. On a flight from Calgary to Dallas, one lady met the man of her dreams on the flight but forgot to get his last name. She reached out to the American Airlines Twitter feed and said, Dear @AmericanAir just got off my flight with my future husband, but didnt catch his full name. The airline, hesitant at first, gave in to her persistence and asked the co-passengers to help her. Last heard, she had been united with the man of her dreams and American Airlines wished them a happy life. Here the brand recognised the opportunity for a wider connect and played along, building an image of a fair, responsive brand.

This is in sharp contrast to brand disasters that have happened across the globe; most noticeable was that of US Airways which tweeted a rude reply and an explicit graphic image as a response to complaints of delay and poor service. No wonder the tweet went viral and got its share of sneer and brickbats. Though the brand apologised, the damage was done.

From infidel flights to a modern love story to abusing a consumer for complaining, the landscape of marketing is changing. No longer can the brands voice be shackled and confined to a narrow aperture. The brand has to be responsive, clever, witty, humorous, tactful, diplomatic, celebratory, compassionate, motivating and much more all the time. To do all these brands need to unshackle their voice and indulge in conversations that are real and not staged.

To have a real conversation with consumers, brands need to fundamentally change their thinking in one key aspect. Not every fan or follower who interacts with the brand may be interested in buying the brand immediately; some may in the future but a bulk of them may never be their consumers.

To do that brands have to become great storytellers. Stories have been going around for centuries, stories become almost immortal, people are hungry for stories and stories are not commercial in nature. Stories connect people with people, make them feel good about themselves and elevate the storyteller to a higher pedestal. As I said earlier, existing messaging is intrusive, irritating and many times unwanted.

Engaging stories create a new connect, people seek the action and drama and willingly become a part of the plot. For any brand, there cannot be better news than this.

To be a storyteller the brands need to be alive to what is happening in the society around them, be socially aware and responsive, foster a feeling of community and inspire action. Consumers seek out brands that are responsive: Responsive to them, responsive to community. We know audience perception is the key to success of brands and there is no better way than telling a compelling story to impact that perception.

To be successful in these changing times, the messaging strategy needs to be unshackled. If the brand is truly social, it will have far many more things to say than harp about itself in the narrowly defined operating space where it confines itself. The stand-up comedian and the travel website have laid out an interesting lesson for us to learn.

The author is managing partner and chief strategy officer, Bang in the Middle.