From a chair in the marketing department, it’s too easy to look only at the world that, well, you can actually see.  The problem is that – while your optics on other parts of the company may be zero – those other zones may be your greatest weakness.  And they’re operating in the webosphere 24/7.

You know, for example, that your company has plants in the Far East or does business with farms, but – unless you’re on this or that executive committee – your true knowledge of the goings on out in the field is extremely low.

Low, that is, until a video hits YouTube and becomes a sensation. That great campaign your team has been lovingly preparing for six months? Forget about it. No one would believe it, and everyone’s in crisis mode, anyway.

Not having a broad handle on your organization’s practices in the farthest reaches of the value chain might have been acceptable 10 years ago, but –  in the age of social media – companies have to be more aware of their soft spots: the activities that are vulnerable to miscommunication, misinterpretation or true mishandling.

How your company handles farmed salmon or trucker hours or car seat testing isn’t in the CMO’s purview, but you better believe that it sits on every marketer’s desk, every day, like a ticking time bomb.

Tick, tick, tick.

There are also plenty of examples where marketers have voluntarily entered the social media jungle, unprepared for the attacks that even a child could have told them might come.

It is smart marketing  – not “negativity” – to have an unblinkingly honest view of your brand and to protect its vulnerabilities. Every brand in the world has ’em. McDonald’s in the US and Waitrose in the UK (hashtags #McDStories and #waitrosereasons, respectively) are both recent examples of powerful brands putting a toddler in front of a Twitter truck and expecting her not to get run over. Maybe she won’t, but do you really want to find out?

Of course, most of the challenges that brands face in social media aren’t new. People have always groused about poor service or “hated” this brand or another. The difference is that now every consumer is one tweet away from telling the universe about it.

Take the case of Progressive Insurance. When New Yorker Matt Fisher’s sister died in a car crash, Fisher wrote a scathing blog post. In one week, Marketwatch claims the company lost 1,000 customers, with another 1,600 saying that they would never do business with the insurer. Plus the news coverage was unbelievable.

Now, was Progressive wrong in this case? I have no idea. Do any of my friends have any personal knowledge of this particular situation? Nope.  But that didn’t stop them from tweeting and retweeting while the story was hot.

NBC News said it best: “the “lessons from [the] Progressive screw up” are that “when it’s Twitter vs. lawyers, take Twitter.”

The insurer settled the Fisher family’s lawsuit within three or four days.

In essence, social media simply amplifies your strengths and weaknesses. It creates a level of transparency that forces advertisers to live by what they say.  Or else.

And by the way, could a consumer just be “out to get” your company and stage some awful stunt that gets picked up worldwide? Yes, and that’s happened. In the meantime, you endure a week of hell, claiming your legitimate innocence, while the brand gets shredded.

So – what to do? Brands need to prepare for and anticipate the downside. A food company may want to think about how its ingredients are selected. A QSR might want to do the same. A shoe or computer company will want to think about its manufacturing policies and whether there are any parties that would relish revealing a damaging factoid.

This is not paranoia and, as I said, it’s not negativism. In my opinion, it’s actually the greatest thing you can do to protect what you care about. Everything’s easy when everything’s good. If the organic material hits the fan, how will you protect your assets and the consumers who believe in you and who need to understand what happened? What message do you want to communicate, and how, when and who will do it?

Don’t wait to figure this out. Sit down in private with your agencies and your leadership and create a plan for what you’ll do when a true or not-true-but-fast-moving event occurs. Know what you’ll do in the short term, and determine whether there would be any possible adjustments to the marketing message or the business overall in the long term.

The truth is that most brands aren’t doing heinous things, but there is a wide gulf between that truth and what actually might happen to you on the Web. Every week, I see a brand looking like a deer in headlights after some goof-up on a social network. When will we get it?

Prepare for what you should assume will be the inevitable. It doesn’t mean it’ll happen, but – if it does and you’re ready – the payoff is the preservation of brand value, your company’s reputation, your employees’ commitment and much more.

The bottom line is that living in a castle and thinking your brand is just fabulous is a mistake. Everyone’s got vulnerabilities. That’s business.

A version of this post was first published HERE by M&M Global.

It was my pleasure to be interviewed by Peppers & Rogers1to1 Magazine for a story on the evolution of branding.  My responses were folded into the article “Hasbro Gives Control of Its Brand to Customers” HERE

Below is an expanded version of my answers.  It’s a topic that’s at the very core of how I think about brands, communications and the marketplace.  I would welcome your thoughts.

I’m doing a story about the evolution of branding: particularly the growing influence of the customer experience in branding strategy.  How is branding strategy different now than it used to be?
The biggest difference is that a “brand” is something that marketers and companies are accustomed to controlling. In the past, a company sent all of the brand messages that general audiences heard.  Brands pulled the strings – they had all the information that was to be had, and so were able to manage consumer expectations and impressions. In that kind of world, an unhappy customer or supplier – or a disgruntled employee or competitor – could only reach as many people as were in his or her own circle of friends and associates.

Today, any individual can reach literally millions of people in real-time.  The message is whatever each person wishes it to be.  Even if that message is inaccurate or unflattering, its reach is almost limitless.  And a message someone posts can grow in influence as others pick it up and begin circulating it to ever larger circles – that’s how something becomes “viral” – which means that marketers have to be as viral as their customers, ever- vigilant and ready to address whatever comes their way from any corner of the world.

A quick example is Motrin. Motrin created an ad in 2008 that used an irreverent tone in an effort to sympathize with moms who have sore backs from carrying their infants.  This offended some moms,  Had this happened in 1988, you probably would not have heard about it unless you were personally close to one of these women.  Today, moms created and posted angry videos of their own online, the Motrin ad was viewed 400,000 times on YouTube and thousands of comments were posted on Twitter alone.  And this happened on a Saturday, by the way: we’re on consumer time now, not brand time.  So same reaction, perhaps, as many might have had 20 years ago, but much bigger megaphone.

This is something that companies and marketing teams are not organized to address – and it exposes all elements of a brand, warts and all, 24/7.  Brands are no longer the shouters: they’ve got to be the listeners. For brands that embrace a conversational relationship with the market, this can be an exciting experience that ultimately creates even more respect and love for a brand.  But for marketers who are accustomed to maintaining a tight rein, there are fundamental challenges ahead.

Branding used to be a way to gain awareness to a mass audience. But tools like social media, more robust customer data, and increased online activity in general seem to be pushing branding toward more personal engagement. What are your thoughts?
I don’t think it’s an either/or: each makes the other better.  Better data helps companies spend their mass advertising budgets more effectively and more precisely, which in turn provides air cover for more personal, individual efforts on the ground.  But there’s no question that it’s always been somewhat difficult to measure the effect of many forms of mass media, and – as other customizable channels become even sharper – there will be even more pressure on companies and their media partners to “prove” value from TV and other big efforts.

Personal engagement has another effect, as well: it raises consumer expectations.  How many times have you heard a frustrated person say “but they know me!” in response to an email addressed in the wrong language, or to the opposite gender? Consumers now know that companies have all this data, and they expect to benefit from it.  How well this data is, in fact, applied may then have an impact on whether the market listens to any messages a brand might send in any channel.

How do trust and credibility play a role in branding strategy these days, and how is it different than before?
Everything’s laid bare now.  There is virtually no nugget of information that isn’t available with a quick Google search.  An employee can create a pseudonym, for example, and tell the world how things “really” work, or that a company is being misleading or untruthful.  There’s no way to hold things back, or sweep something under the rug anymore. 

This puts intense pressure on brands to be more authentic and more worthy of consumers’ trust.  Let’s say a company manufactures merchandise overseas in unacceptable or even illegal conditions: in the past it could continue to do so for years, if not forever.  Now that people walk the globe with high-speed Internet access and cell phones that capture video, those times are over.  And if a company does get “caught” doing something today, these dynamics make the blast exponentially more damaging.

Where do you see the future of branding headed?
I’m hopeful about the future. My own professional community is full of marketers who understand that a brand is no longer corporate IP that needs to be policed and protected: it’s the beating heart of the enterprise. Instead of being talked at, consumers want to talk with a brand, and see the very human passion behind what you sell.  That can be scary, but it’s also pretty darn exciting.

What’s the biggest challenge to getting there?
One of the most difficult challenges is the uneven level of understanding and expectations of those who surround the marketer: the CEO, the CFO, the pressured head of sales and the Board, to name a few.  Executives already know what television advertising or print is, no explanation needed.  There’s comfort in that.  There’s going to be a lot of uncertainty and skepticism about dipping into a world that looks a little crazy, to do something a brand’s never done before.  And the road won’t be smooth: it’s already difficult to explain why something “negative” that’s said online is par for the course and why the brand must continue to engage, not back away.  I am very empathetic to the people on both sides of that table.

Any other thoughts?
For those who already know that good ideas rarely come from sitting behind a desk and who get charged up by listening to product users, prospects and partners, this is a great world.  Assuming a brand is being authentic, there is no real “bad” feedback – there are only lessons that help make you better and better.  There’s going to be plenty of trial and error, but this is all about getting closer to your customer, and that’s a great thing.

 

Mojo readers know that I follow two wise marketing/business cartoonists and like to share their work once in awhile. On my second blog, Marketing Observations Grown Daily, it’s David JonesAdland. Here, it’s Tom Fishburne’s Brand Camp.

Both offer observations that – in a very tiny space – say volumes about just how goofy this business can be. 

As you might expect, this is not the first time I’ve posted one of Tom’s cartoons about social media.  Enjoy!

‘Seen the new Pringles campaign yet? Check out the new post on my second blog, Stephanie Fierman: Marketing Observations Grown Daily.

Mojo readers know that I truly enjoy the work of two wonderful marketing/business cartoonists and like to share it now and then.  On my second blog, Marketing Observations Grown Daily, it’s David JonesAdland.  Here, it’s Tom Fishburne’s Brand Camp. 

I have to say that  ever since I found out that tweets carry a number of legal risks  I’ve been waiting for someone to deliver this painfully true characterization of what a meeting between Marketing and Legal just might be like… Enjoy!

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As some of you know, I’ve really started to wonder how we can possibly ingest the fire hose of information that comes at us every day. The obvious answer is that we can’t. Brits know it, tweens know it, experts know it.  And yet… on it comes, leading one to either eliminate it – unsubscribe to an email newsletter, sign off Facebook, stop watching Real Housewives of New Jersey (oops, sorry – that’s mine) – or somehow filter out what we don’t want.  Some call this phenomenon the “attention economy.” 

In the attention economy, a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention and a need to allocate that finite amount of attention over a rising level of noise.  In other words, it becomes increasingly important to make choices, to become more discriminating, to understand the value of our thoughts and our time.  So while I may watch reality TV because I like it, it would never dawn on me to voluntarily invite a continuous information stream into my skull that I neither want nor need. I recently wrote a post on this topic as it pertains to Twitter, arguably the Web’s newest, most popular time suck.

Well here’s another upside-down concept from the Twuniverse:  Twitter Karma.  If you’re not on Twitter, you don’t have a clue what this would be. But if you are, you may know what’s coming…


On Twitter, you follow people whose thoughts interest you, and others may follow you for the same reason.  Twitter Karma refers to those whom you follow who do not follow you back. This means that you’ve elected to see every tweet of theirs and they have not reciprocated. Some people find this to be rude: so rude, in fact that they unfollow individuals who – after a respectable amount of time – didn’t follow them back.

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Wait – what? This is a problem? Did I go to sleep and wake up back in the 3rd grade?

We’re grown-ups. Each of us has her own unique interests, profession and curiosities. Each of us has goals of expanding his knowledge in different directions. So if I follow you on Twitter because you have a point of view I find valuable, why would I expect you to reciprocate (and consider it a compliment) if you don’t need what I have to say? Maybe someday you’ll be interested… but not now.

I do not take offense, but make no mistake: I’m supposed to.  By implication, those who do not reciprocate are ingrates and creeps.


Twitter karma feels precisely like one of those mean little games children play. Move on.


Look, here’s my point of view: if you’re on Twitter, chances are you’re a reasonably confident person who has something to say. I doubt you need or want an insincere slap on the back from someone who felt pressured to offer it.


This is the only life we get, people. You only have so many brain cells: use them wisely. Be choosy. Mandatory school books or work stuff aside… take in the information you need and want. Leave the rest. By doing so, we not only grow… but maybe we do increase the likelihood that we’ll have something to say that others will want to “follow.”


But, hey. If you’re squeamish about unfollowing a “mean girl” (or guy) on Twitter, sort folks on TweetDeck.  It’ll change your Twexistence.

Today, we seem awash in media – the social kind and otherwise.  I jumped into the Twitter pool, for example, because my friends and colleagues were beginning to behave as though I might devolve into a fish if I didn’t start tweeting.  I’m tweeting, OK?!  Stop bugging me!

724 tweets later… I actually think I get a lot out of Twitter.  I follow 180 people (all their tweets pop up together on my “home page” for easy reading) and I’m mind-boggled that over 400 people follow me, theoretically raising my profile in the universe.  I wander the site, use search and stumble onto things I didn’t know. I’d say that the value I’m getting from the site falls into 5 active categories:

1. New Twitter friends.  If you tweet enough, eventually you find people that you’d be friends with in real life.  They think like you, or don’t and are mature enough to joust with you on a topic.  They’re funny or profane or smart or all three.  Here are 4 twitterers I feel lucky to have “met”: Note_To_CMO, Brian Kenny, Ron Shevlin and Jason Siegel

2. Current friends with whom I don’t spend nearly enough time: TheCMOClub, JarvisCromwell, Marc HandelmanSteve Sieck and Jarvis Cromwell

3. Marketers of some status whose thoughts I find interesting: Bryan Eisenberg, Douglas Karr, Pete Blackshaw and Ann HandleyJeffry Pilcher and Jeremy Pepper,

4. Business figures/celebs/media personalities such as Seth Godin, Steve Case, Maureen Dowd and Downing Street

5. I learn things about the world from HardlyNormal, FT, The Nation, Be The Change and others.


In the beginning, I was just trying to keep up, stick to Twitter’s unspoken rules and get the hang of the site’s ebb and flow.  I’m sending’ some tweets and wandering about.  I try to make each tweet reflect a thought that someone might care about or find amusing.  I try.  I always ask myself, brutally, why I think anyone might be remotely interested in or amused by what I’m about to say.  If I can think of a reason, I tweet.  If not, I come back later.


HOWEVER


It seems to me that not everyone thinks of others.  There are many on Twitter who think – as Dane Cook said on Larry King last week – that “Just ate a ham sandwich” is a good tweet.  Could a twitterer possibly think that one’s banal eating, drinking, sleeping and transportation status are, on average, remotely interesting or worthy of someone’s time?  What sort of blind arrogance or obliviousness could prompt someone to believe that “Hmmm, coffee” adds something to another person’s life experience? That “Got to be at Tampa airport at 6am” is noteworthy? 
I actually posted this video in another post – on my other blog – but it just captures this aspect of Twitter so well…


As an aside, there’s another category of weirdly self-absorbed twitterers.  I’ll call these folks “twegomaniacs” (I wanted to be clever with “bozo,” but couldn’t make it work).  I’ve followed – then un-followed – two of these twinsufferables: the first, a famous business celeb and author who was cluttering my life with random tweets 24 hours a day (because she has people tweet for her at 3am), and a business journalist who just thinks he’s da bomb.  Drove me nuts.  Clogged my home page and took far more of my time than their respective contributions deserved.  They’re history.

Which got me thinking:  what responsibility does each of us have to everyone else on Twitter, particularly those in our respective follower/followee universes?  Do we have the right to blurt “Forgot to pick up my shirts” and other tweets of that ilk?  Are we so vain as to think that every random thought should be expressed? Would you walk up to someone at a cocktail party and yell, “New sneakers!”

I didn’t think so.

So what’s the purpose of my meandering?  Just this: I think we should expect more.  More from each other, more from the media we consume, more from our choices. 

Curate the words and factoids fighting for your brain space each day.  Think about the value of your time. 

The airwaves/webwaves/our brainwaves are only going to get weirder and more clogged as time goes on.  Horse has left the barn.  Can’t unring a bell.  That dog won’t hunt.  Etc.  There will be more and more detritus trying to get in.  Edit out what doesn’t make you better.  When was the last time you started receiving a new email newsletter, or unsubscribed to an old one?

And in the case of Twitter – for goodness sake, don’t voluntarily invite folks into your head who need to tell you that they just got back from the grocery store or plan to enjoy the sunshine.  As an aside, a lot of other folks have perhaps had the same reaction to Twitter’s potential avalanche of inanities:  more than 60% of new Twitter users stop using the service altogether within a month of joining.  In my world a 40% retention rate is yikes time.

I simply think you deserve more.  And if you don’t start sweeping out the crud, I’m afraid you might just start telling me that you’re gonna watch some TV now… and that won’t be good.

‘Back soon with further thoughts on this topic (with examples from your favorite marketing magazine…)