Can Social Media Really Be Used for Branding?

Can social media be used for branding? Or to state the question in an even clearer and more tangible way, "Can a marketer abandon conventional broadcast methods and use social media to build reach and drive brand awareness?"

First, let's define the terms "branding" and "social media." Through careless overuse, these fundamental advertising concepts have been deprived of their essential essence.

Stated simply, branding is the process of creating a feeling, attitude or perception in a person towards a product or company. Branding helps a company differentiate itself from the competition. It is what makes us think of Coca-Cola as more "old fashioned" and "established" and of Pepsi in terms "edgy" and "for the young generation."

Now let's move on to social marketing. There are many examples of places on the Internet where people come together to form brand social communities. Facebook is one. Twitter is another. Email newsletters are the oldest social communities and the most commonly used by brands.



Traditionally, marketers have used broadcast mechanisms such as TV ads, radio spots or display banners to blast their message to a wide audience. In the broadcast branding model, the focus is on primarily on garnering reach (number of impressions) and frequency (how often) within a target demographic -- in essence talking to a wide pool of anonymized impressions.

However, in a social branding campaign, the marketer can't think in terms of anonymized impressions. This is because social groups are made up of people and not impressions. So the focus of the campaign shifts to acquiring user data of consumers who want to hear from the brand -- the name, email address or social networking handle of the end user. Instead of planning a campaign targeted towards women 18 - 54, a product manager at Gap could now reach consumers based on their individual preferences -- be it for khakis, jeans or summer dresses.

The prospect of speaking to a consumer in such a customized way is enticing, and is a large driver of the buzz around social media. But before social media can take off as a mainstream branding tool, it has to prove itself capable of delivering those old branding staples -- reach and frequency.

And for both metrics, social branding campaigns are more than up to the task.

If you want to find America's consumers, go online. There, you'll find 76.2% of consumers in America. And they are social. In fact, it seems that's all they ever do. According to Forrester Research, over 95% of people in America have an email address. Nearly 50% of people share their email address with 20 or more friends.

Email might be the oldest engagement tool in the marketing toolbox. But the new social vehicles aren't doing so badly either. According to research released by JP Morgan, U.S. consumers watched approximately 240 million YouTube videos a day in 2009. Over 100 million U.S. consumers across all key demographics are on Facebook. And if one accounts for the viral effect, the effects are staggering. A Ford Fiesta video campaign launched earlier this year got 6.5 million YouTube views and 50,000 requests for information about the car -- virtually none from people who already had a Ford in the garage.

While social media can match or come close to broadcast in terms of delivering reach, it definitely has a clear advantage in delivering frequency.

TV shows typically deliver high audience duplication from one episode to another. But marketers have to pay for the second showing of an ad all the same. Achieving optimal frequency can quickly get to be expensive.

In a social branding campaign, marketers acquire the email address, Facebook username, Twitter handle or site login username with the explicit permission of the consumer. They don't have to pay a dime for subsequent communications. What's more, if the marketer leverages the acquired consumer data properly, future messages can be delivered in a relevant and customized way. Relevant messaging helps boost important metrics like aided/unaided awareness, brand preference and loyalty.

"Acquiring the email addresses of people who are interested in our products is instrumental to our leadership in the marketplace," says Jared Blank, Senior Director, e-Commerce, Tommy Hilfiger. "It allows us to communicate the wide breadth of offerings in a crowded marketplace effectively and keep consumers engaged with our brand."

I am not making the case for an either/or approach. But marketers need to take advantage of the potential for reach, frequency and meaningful branding that exist in social media. For this to happen, they have to first to make that fundamental shift to focus on acquiring user data instead of planning for anonymized impressions.

It is already beginning to happen. Earlier this year, Pepsi decided not to advertise during the Super Bowl. Instead, it started a Pepsi Refresh social media initiative.

"It's a big shift," said says Lauren Hobart, chief marketing officer for Pepsi-Cola North America Beverages said in Time. "We explored different launch plans, and the Super Bowl just wasn't the right venue, because we're really trying to spark a full-year movement from the ground up. The plan is to have much more two-way dialogue with our customers."

To which I say, Ditto.

5 comments about "Can Social Media Really Be Used for Branding? ".
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  1. Tom Martin from Converse Digital, June 1, 2010 at 10:01 a.m.

    It's a shame that you allowed yourself to get caught up in the ancient Reach/Frequency model in this discussion.

    You absolutely can use SocMe for branding, especially when you're trying to refine, redefine a brand. You can see an actual case study about how SocMe was used to successfully re-brand Mardi Gras here

    Branding via SocMe isn't so much about Reach/Frequency as it is about belief and trust. Consumers don't really trust advertising anymore, but via SocMe channels like Blogs, Twitter, FB, Flickr, YouTube and live channels like LiveStream, brands can present their brand reality to consumers and let the consumer come to their own conclusion and brand image.

    If done right, you get the outcome like the one in the Mardi Gras experiment above.

  2. Karen Ticktin from brandthis, June 1, 2010 at 12:25 p.m.

    We think of Social Media as media that is 'social' and believe that any engagement with consumers regardless of platform contributes to the brand's equity/branding. Consumers not only expect brands to have a social media presence but also to engage with them via these environments. Additionally they have more respect for and loyalty to the brands that engage with them via social media. The ROI in social media cannot be measured in short term reach and and frequency but rather longer term relationship building.

  3. Nichole Goodyear from Brickfish, June 1, 2010 at 12:32 p.m.

    Social media has transformed traditional brand marketing into an opportunity to engage in two-way conversations with your customers. By participating in these conversations, the course of them can be changed and guided. Marketers can leverage these conversations to provide customers with multiple ways to engage with your brand – integrating them into your marketing channel. A consumer who loves your brand will willingly contribute to your promotions and advertising campaigns. They will passionately recommend your brand to friends via Twitter and Facebook. As consumers create their own content - from Web pages to videos to blogs - and share that content with their social networks, they are shaping the way the world sees everything, including perceptions about your brand. --

    Nichole Goodyear,
    CEO of Brickfish,

  4. Marcus Osborne from FusionBrand, June 1, 2010 at 9:30 p.m.

    This is a great read but it has two flaws.

    The first is that your definition of branding "branding is the process of creating a feeling, attitude or perception in a person towards a product or company. Branding helps a company differentiate itself from the competition. It is what makes us think of Coca-Cola as more "old fashioned" and "established" and of Pepsi in terms "edgy" and "for the young generation." Sounds more like what an advertising agency tells a client than the reality.

    Branding is about a product or service offering economic, experiential and emotional value to a customer and backed up by every day organisational excellence.

    Secondly, as Tom Martin above said, reach and frequency belong in the marketing/advertising grave yard along with the other mass media mass economy models of positioning, one-size-fits-all messaging and awareness.

    This is especially true in the social media space which incidentally is not a branding tool but merely another channel that brands must master to engage with consumers in a personal and bespoke manner.

    Companies have to understand that the old mass communication tactics and tools being pushed by advertising agencies have no place in the SM or SocMe space.

  5. Kevin Horne from Verizon, June 1, 2010 at 9:38 p.m.

    Here's some nonlinear logic:
    "acquiring user data of consumers -- the name, email address or social networking handle...a product manager at Gap could now reach consumers based on their individual preferences -- be it for khakis, jeans or summer dresses."

    How does having my social networking "handle" tell you whether i like khakis?

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