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How to Develop Your Brand in This Social Media Age

10/28/2014 06:03 EDT | Updated 12/28/2014 05:59 EST
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A few years back, I attended an innovation conference held at Patagonia's headquarters in Ventura, California.

As part of the visit, we were all taken on a tour of Patagonia's facilities. That's where I met Chip Bell, our tour guide.

Chip embodied the California spirit. He looked like The Dude in The Big Lebowski, spoke like the surfer turtle Crush in Finding Nemo, and exuded laid back calm and tranquility.

At one of our stops, while Chip was busy telling us about Patagonia's sustainable materials policy, one of his colleagues hollered "Hey, your disk is ready" and flipped Chipper a Frisbee. Chip was overjoyed.

We asked him why the big hullaballoo over a Frisbee? "Dude, this disk is made with 100% sustainable materials and processes." Nice, but still - it's a Frisbee.

"Dude, I was eleven time world freestyle Frisbee champion. This is a seriously cool disk." he re-emphasized.

Our Chipper was a world freestyle Frisbee champion? We looked at him, a bit startled and in awe. The tour continued.

Chip then showed us the Patagonia surfboard stairway, a case study in the company's progressive work policies. "If the surf is pumping, our employees can grab their boards here and hit the waves. As long as the work gets done later, it's all good."

I asked Chip if he was a surfer. "Dude, I run a surf school when I'm not at Patagonia. I love teaching kids with disabilities and special needs - they're awesome." he replied.

Our tour guide and Frisbee champion also ran a surf school? Who was this Dude?

We were to find out in a moment, when Chip took us to his desk. With his overachieving credentials, humanitarian streak and incredible knowledge of the company, we all imagined he was a VP of sustainability or innovation, or perhaps running the PR division.

Wrong. Chip was the receptionist. I was, to put it mildly, surprised.

A Patagonia staffer, sensing my disbelief, let me in on another secret. "A few years back, we were looking for a new President. We're Patagonia, so we decided to vote on it. Chip came in...second."

I had no trouble imagining Chipper as the President of Patagonia. Sure, his math skills might not be so strong, but they have people for that.

So why did I just tell you the story of Chipper?

For a start, I love a good story. All people do. Stories give us a common bond, a shared experience.

This story in particular is also relevant to what we're talking about today. It's a brand story. Chipper is Patagonia. He embodies the soul of the brand.

Seth Godin said brands are a collection of expectations. While I like that definition, I think we could add to it.

Great brands are a collection of stories that tie people together around an idea. They take something that isn't human - a corporation, a product - and imbue it with emotion and power.

I think, by telling you about Chip, I've deepened your impression that this is a brand that's human, with soul.

Does your brand have a story like that?

THE PROBLEM WITH BRANDS TODAY

I was invited to talk to you today about building brands with social media. My goal, though, is to convince you that brands are built with stories.

Stories...are...not social media. Stories also are not pen and paper, or tv screens, or radios, or burnt sticks used to draw on the cave wall.

Those are tactics. Means of communication. Not stories.

This point, increasingly, seems to be lost on us.

We live in a fast-paced, technology-driven world. A world demanding immediate action and blink reaction. We need everything now. We only see the short game. Something social media is great at delivering.

Brands, however, aren't created in the blink of an eye. They must be carefully built and tended, like a bonfire we share stories around. Brand creation requires reflection. Turning off the computer. Looking way upstream, past tactics, getting to the inspiration of your brand, and why that matters.

Like a cement foundation, it takes time to engineer, mix, sculpt, and set a brand. But once you build it, it's incredibly strong and durable. Unfortunately, creating this foundation is hard work. It's soooo tempting to skip past it.

If this all sounds a bit esoteric, let me give you a real example. I remember when I first got into Search Engine Marketing some years ago. The specialist I was working with told me he'd found all the keywords that would get me the most hits. All I had to do was add content.

"Content? I said. What do you mean, content?"

"You know, words."

"The story, you mean? The brand story?"

"Yeah, that kind of stuff."

The foundation of my company had been relegated to 'stuff' you just stuck into tweets. No big deal.

Therein lies the problem.

THE READY! FIRE! AIM! CULTURE

We love jumping on shiny new tactics. Content, story, brand, they're just filler between character one and one hundred forty of our latest tweet. Important, sure, but not as important as getting it out, fast.

This perspective doesn't help us. In fact, it hurts us.

In a recent BusinessInsider story, senior correspondent Alyson Shontell listed the top social media mistakes most businesses make. The biggest ones were...

  • Thinking it's a sprint instead of a marathon,
  • Not having a plan or strategy,
  • Talking too much and not listening enough,
  • Spending too much time on self-promotion,
  • Expecting social media to do all the work,
  • Not understanding it's all about relationship building,
  • Getting on social media because everyone else is.

How does this reflect back on us? We appear to have the attention span of a squirrel, look shallow, disorganized, egocentric - like that guy at the party handing out business cards - "Hey, how are you? Can I help you with your financial services? What'd you say your name was? "

We're unwilling to invest in creating a brand that matters, crafting a compelling story, listening to our customers' stories. We're just pushing for the sale, baby.

President Andrew Jackson said. "Take time to deliberate. But when the time for action arrives, stop thinking and go." We have, as a culture, forgotten to deliberate. So when we act, we screw it up. Whoops, that didn't work. Let's try again. Whoops, let's try again.

That brings me to another top social media mistake Alyson Shontell brought up.

  • Not measuring the true cost of social.

Sure, social is free. Anyone can tweet or create a pinterest page. But how much time does it cost us to constantly get it wrong, fix, and get wrong again? How much does it cost to send messages that people don't care about, or don't want to hear? It takes time, and money, to screw it up and fix it again and again.

It took Brian Wilson years to invent the complex musical tapestry that became the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds album. It was a painful experience. Just recording the album took a year. Singer Mike Love told this story: "Every voice had to be right, resonance, tonality had to be right, timing had to be right. And then Brian might, the next day, throw it out and we'd have to do it over again."

Was it worth it? Pet Sounds became a huge success. It was voted one of the best albums of all time by New Music Express and Rolling Stone. It was inducted into the Library of Congress because of its cultural and artistic significance.

Great things take work, reflection, vision. Something we're more and more averse to.

Instead of crafting on our own Pet Sounds, we're jumping on our Guitar Hero game, then wondering why nobody lines up to listen.

WHAT GOES INTO A BRAND?

What are the two key elements of building a brand?

Self-knowledge, and deep understanding of your consumer. Who you are, and what people out think of you.

Discovering these two things is a science, and an art. Let me explain.

FIRST, THE SCIENCE

My friend Hugh Ruthven, who, like me, is a brand consultant, describes it this way:

The first thing I do on projects is talk to the people who ARE the brand. Management, employees, everyone. In my last project, I did 28 hours of interviews myself. So when I stood up in the boardroom and described the brand, I told the bosses "if you don't agree with this, don't blame me. Blame everyone who works here. That's the brand they see."

There's simply no substitute for research. Not lame online studies or bloodless polls, either. I'm talking about getting in the trenches and really talking to people.

My mentor Ron Woodall helped build one of the greatest ad agency brands in Canada. You may have heard of Frank Palmer and Palmer Jarvis DDB. Ron Woodall inspired that agency.

What he did - I know because I was part of it - was come into our offices, sit down with a piece of paper, and ask what we thought of this place, then shut up. We just started talking and talking. We told him what we loved, hated, how we'd make it better, everything. All he had to do was write. And write. And write.

When he finished his interviews with all 100 or so employees, he told Frank Palmer "This is your brand. If you don't like it, don't blame me. It's what everyone working here thinks."

Lesson: do the research thoroughly, and the brand will show itself.

What's more, if you do the same sort of research with consumers, you'll almost certainly discover what role your brand plays in their life.

Peter Drucker said "The aim of marketing is to know and understand the customer so well the product or service fits him and sells itself."

You need to do this research. You may think you know consumers, but I bet you'd be shocked at how much they've changed. According to a new trend study done by Ford, consumers are -- among other things:

  • Jaded by hyperconsumption, feeling it doesn't provide the happiness it promised. And it's killing the planet, to boot.
  • Feeling insecure about their institutions, given the meltdown of the global economy a couple of years ago
  • Overwhelmed by the onslaught of information. But at the same time, able to access thousands of sources of brand-free information with that same technology.

NEXT, THE ART

You've done the research. Done the science. Now on to the art.

No brand is rational. Brands are emotional. Their foundation may be built on research. But what makes them reach for the sky is art. That's where their power lies.

Dr. Donald Calne, a neurologist at UBC, summed it up beautifully: "The essential difference between reason and emotion is that reason leads to conclusions, while emotion leads to action."

So how do you build art and emotion into your brand? I can't tell you, any more than I can tell you how to paint a picture or write a song. But I can tell you the advertising and design field has artists who do just that. People who connect dots most of us can't even see. People who turn something rational into something profound.

If you find yourself someone who can do this, hold on tight.

WHAT HAPPENS WHEN YOU WEAVE IT ALL TOGETHER?

So we've talked about the art, talked about the science. You know what your brand is, and why it matters to consumers. Now, I'd like to show you what happens when you really nail it.

When you get it right, a funny thing happens. You start to win followers. People who believe in you. People who talk about you. Who start to tell your stories. Like I told the story of Chipper Bell and Patagonia.

Over time, these people and their stories become the brand. Your company is just there to provide product, and facilitate their conversations.

Case in point. Who tells the better story of Harley Davidson? The company? Or the bikers who live for their Harleys?

Who tells the better story about Apple? The company, or the grandmas and grandkids who share photos with each other with their iPads?

Who tells the better story of Lululemon? The company, or the legions of yoga fans strolling through Whole Foods in their Lulu gear?

Now, we've talked about how to build a brand that matters. A brand that people love to talk about. Here's where social media comes in.

SOCIAL MEDIA, DONE THE RIGHT WAY.

A recent survey by Gallup had some surprising findings on what social media is actually used for.

It isn't selling stuff. In fact, 62% of people said social media doesn't influence their purchase decision at all. Only 5% said social media has a great deal of influence on their purchasing.

94% of people who use social media say they use it primarily to connect with friends and family. Their tribe.

If you're one of the Harley bikers I just described, who's your family? Other bikers.

Same goes for Apple fans, and Lululemon fans.

Gallup said it best: "If companies want to acquire new customers, their best bet is to engage their existing customers and inspire them to advocate on their behalf."

I would suggest there are two ways to get customers to advocate on your behalf. The first is to make it easy for them to tell other people about you.

Take a look at this forum for Prius lovers. Doesn't look like a Toyota site. But given that you can buy all sorts of Prius gear on it, in addition to connecting with other Prius lovers, it isn't inconceivable Toyota might be helping it along.

And then, of course, the granddaddy of all connectors -- the NRA. As much as I disagree with what they do, and how they do it, they are peerless when it comes to connecting gun fans on behalf of their sponsors.

So that's how you enable your fans to connect with one another. Just as important, however, is getting them to connect with you.

Wait a minute. Aren't you supposed to be reaching out to them with social media?

No. If you have a brand with a story that attracts, your fans will reach out to you. And, if you let them, they'll tell you how to make your brand better.

Social media is the world's best feedback loop. To make it work though, think about these guidelines provided by tech entrepreneur Loren Baxter:

  • Make it fast. If there's too much time between feedback and action, don't bother.
  • Make it motivating. If I give you my feedback, I expect to be rewarded, or recognized.
  • Make it measurable. Saying I'll fix something you suggested, and showing you how I did it, are two very different things.

THINKING FROM BRAND TO SOCIAL MEDIA

In the great book 'Brand thinking and other noble pursuits' Debbie Milman says:

Scientists and anthropologists tend to agree that humans are, in essence, pack animals. Which explains why we feel safer and more secure in groups. Perhaps our motivation to brand, and be branded, comes from our hardwired instinct to connect.

We are human. We have a hardwired need to connect. And we, as entrepreneurs and businesspeople, want our companies to have that human connection, too.

Whether you succeed or not, depends on how you approach it.

Nail the brand first, then the social media tactics, and you'll be moving in the right direction. And ahead of most of the pack.

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