For generations marketers have been trained to think and act in a certain way with brand and reputation management – now that schooling is fast becoming obsolete, says Thomas Brown, director of strategy and marketing at the Chartered Institute of Marketing
Command and control. Ownership. Protection. Governance. Legions of brand and marketing professionals have been brought up with this mindset.
An organisation’s brand and reputation is a strategic asset which can only be crafted by trained professionals, which must be managed diligently and robustly, and which must be protected from misuse, abuse and misrepresentation at all costs.
This thinking has spawned volumes of brand rule books and, in many larger organisations, entire teams installed to ensure that the organisation’s desired brand positioning and messaging is accurately reflected at every opportunity, internally and externally. The term brand police sounds all too familiar.
This mindset, however, now has a nemesis: empowerment. In a simpler time, consumers were much more passive. Communication from an organisation was largely one-way and largely controllable as media options were fewer and trust higher than it is today.
The passive consumer, however, has been replaced by a more savvy, connected and empowered population, particularly accelerated by the advent of social media and the penetrating role of technology in our day-to-day lives.
The starting point is to accept that you can’t control every message, every opinion and every act of your brand
Today’s consumer expects greater participation in the brands they interact with. They expect more personalisation and more of a dialogue, and they expect to be listened to. Contrary to the controlled media environment of years gone by, today anyone with an opinion can share an update, post a tweet or write a review and there’s absolutely nothing that an organisation can do about it.
For business and brand owners, this is often treated as a risk, leading to fear and a potentially defensive response. I would argue, however, that the opportunity this shift towards empowerment presents far outweighs the risk.
So what is the opportunity? Well, an empowered consumer isn’t a bad thing. Better engagement with consumers, clients and even colleagues in what your organisation does, how it does it and what it stands for, has the potential to be potent.
An empowered and positively engaged stakeholder is more likely to show loyalty and advocacy to your brand, if you recognise they have a voice, want to be listened to and need to be responded to.
To get value from this opportunity the starting point is to accept that you can’t control every message, every opinion and every act of your brand. As simple as that might sound, in practice it’s almost counter-intuitive. It runs contrary to those teachings of brand and reputation management over many decades, and requires marketers to unlearn past models and approaches. It needs us to learn to let go.
In practice, there are two key ingredients to help any organisation embrace the democratisation of brands and reputation, and turn fear and risk into opportunity.
Firstly, start by listening. A smart friend once told me, “You have two ears and one mouth for a reason”. He was right. Businesses are all too quick to jump into a conversation with a consumer or announce something, but we often forget to listen first.
Social media is an incredibly powerful tool for gauging customer sentiment, understanding frustrations and aspirations, and learning about our markets. Find the places your customers inhabit – the right blogs, forums, Facebook pages, Twitter accounts, and so on – and soak it up like a sponge. Importantly, have colleagues in your organisation do likewise; don’t just keep it to the marketing team.
Secondly, change what you mean by success. Encouraging marketers to let go of control and innovate requires a different mindset. Evaluating success based on whether something works or doesn’t work will actually stifle innovation. Prioritise experimentation and a test-and-learn approach to customer engagement, new product development, branded content and marketing campaigns. A little failure is good for the soul and the learnings that come with it can open up new opportunities for future success.