It's hard not to feel a twinge of sympathy when you see brands straining to be edgy on social media. It's like spotting some graying playboy or lonely cougar at a bar, desperate to attract younger admirers. It takes a lot of effort to squeeze themselves into those tight tweets. And sometimes, it pays off.
But as we all know, even when things go as planned, those kinds of encounters rarely end well. They are, shall we say, one-offs. They may lead to a quick like or the occasional late-night re-tweet, but they aren't going to establish the kind of meaningful relationships with stakeholders that brands now need more than ever as consumer engagement becomes increasingly digitized.
It is the central disconnect at the heart of branding in the digital age. There is greater opportunity to find new and creative ways to tell your brand's story. But instead, many brands are fixated on contorting who and what they are to better fit a platform. The ability to potentially reach a vast new audience -- literally at the push of a button -- has so hypnotized some brand managers that they allow themselves to be seduced by the numbers and led farther and farther away from their brand values.
But just because there is the potential for greater reach than ever before doesn't mean brands should compromise to achieve it. Quite the opposite: As brands expose themselves to wider and deeper consumer bases, they better be sure they are crafting the kinds of communications and branding that represents them with hyper-authenticity. Brands that craft a digital presence like they are meticulously piecing together a comb over often attract an audience that sees and treats them as disposable. From there, it is a rapid slide into off-brand status.
Chasing a platform's audience creates a situation where two things can happen -- both bad. The first is that you can be ignored, or worse, called out for being inappropriate or inauthentic. The second is perhaps even more corrosive to brand equity: You can be increasingly accepted and defined as the inauthentic or devalued version of the brand that you have created. The new audience you find won't value or respect you and you will alienate the legitimate stakeholders that felt a real connection to you.
And don't blame it on the brand. Show me a brand manager who feels compelled to always re-sort to celebrities, sales, sex or forced edginess and I will show you someone who is running on creative fumes and running from their responsibilities. Good branding doesn't demand any of that.
One of the most glaring ironies of branding today is that as brands chase digital platforms, their communications and marketing become increasingly predictable and formulaic. But on traditional platforms -- particularly television commercials -- marketers are taking newfound liberties and creative leaps with their content.
Advertising, one of the oldest tools in the brand arsenal, has found new energy, expression and reach by leveraging the power of new media to develop long-format content and to extend their engagement with social media and PR. The pass-along power cannot be underestimated -- and its ability to drive brand alignment is unprecedented.
You can't get products much more traditional than tires, crackers and piano lessons. But recently, Firestone, Honey Maid and the Tosando music school in Japan have all gotten rave reviews for commercials that pushed boundaries not with shock value, but with creativity, great narrative storytelling and cinematic filmmaking. Firestone's romantic "Pick Up" ad; Honey Maid's heartfelt and inclusive "This is Wholesome" (and its brilliant follow up); and Tosando's delicate father-daughter spot all resonate deeply while remaining totally in alignment with both brand and product.
Brands should take notice. There are no creative limitations to the work they can do online and that embracing creativity and authenticity will most certainly inform their other work. There are no benefits in big numbers if they mean presenting yourself cheaply. For those brands hoping to chase audiences online, I would tell them the same thing I tell my friends who are single. Go out there and have fun but be true to yourself. Nobody is saying you have to settle down. Just don't settle for less.