Gini Dietrich

You No Longer Control Your Company’s Brand

By: Gini Dietrich | August 31, 2010 | 

Steve McKee, the founder of McKee Wallwork Cleveland, BusinessWeek advertising columnist, author of When Growth Stalls, and friend wrote recently here about branding and how the tide has shifted. He says you no longer control your company’s brand; your customers do.

Think about that for a second. You no longer control your company’s brand; your customers do.

It used to be that the big, Fortune 500 companies would spend millions of dollars on fancy advertising and huge global PR campaigns and years and years and years to tell their customers and prospective customers what they wanted them to think about the brand. If someone was happy with the product or service, they wouldn’t tell anyone. If they were unhappy, they’d tell five to 10 people and hope to get attention through a nastily written letter to the CEO that almost always went unanswered.

Now, with the speed of the web, customers tell not just a handful of people, but thousands if they’re happy or unhappy about doing business with you. That’s good and bad. In the “old days,” people wouldn’t tell their friends and family if they were happy, but they now go out of their way online to talk about the great experience they have with you. Likewise, they badmouth you online in a moment’s notice, in the hopes that you’re paying attention and will fix their issue immediately.

Let’s start with the good. Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Flickr, and Foursquare are all changing the way we do business, both as company leaders and as consumers. Let’s say you have a retail location and one of your brand loyalists, “checks in” on Facebook Places or Foursquare (both location-based tools that link to a person’s network). That person’s 500 friends see them check in and, having never heard of you, ask about your store. Suddenly you have new customers because one loyal person told their friends…and their friends told their friends who told their friends who told their friends.

Or, you have a service business that doesn’t have brick and mortar. Most of us built our businesses through word-of-mouth and referrals. You go to lunch with a client and the client tweets, “Having lunch with Gini Dietrich and her amazing team.” Suddenly your client’s friends want to know why Gini’s team is so amazing and what it would take to get to work with them.

Let your customers control your brand and tell their friends.

Now, the bad. The story I like to tell when I speak is that we have a client who owns assisted living homes in Illinois and Indiana. I was traveling with their CEO in March and we were on their Facebook wall, as I showed him what our respective teams were doing together to develop their social media presence. While we were on there, we noticed a resident’s daughter had posted how unhappy she was with a hair cut her mother had had that day. She ranted and raved and wanted someone to respond.

This was after 9 p.m. in Chicago, which meant our teams weren’t monitoring the wall at that moment. So the CEO posted a comment to her that said something along the lines of wanting to help her and asking her to direct message him her email address or phone number. She did. They chatted. He ended up giving her mother a free hair cut.

But this is where the magic happened: The woman went back to the Facebook wall and said how sorry she was that she’d said negative things about the company, that the issue was fixed, and she’d recommend the home to any of her friends looking for help with their parents.

With a simple email exchange, he turned an irate customer into a brand steward.

It’s a new world where your canned messages are no longer enough. Pay attention to what your customers are saying about you online. Participate in the conversation. Listen to their wants and needs. Let them help you with customer service, new products/services, and market research. Let your customers tell their friends about your brand.

What tips do you have for those who are scared of letting go of control in the new online world?

* Fabulous image from RonAmok

About Gini Dietrich

Gini Dietrich is the founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich, an integrated marketing communications firm. She is the author of Spin Sucks, co-author of Marketing in the Round, and co-host of Inside PR. She also is the lead blogger at Spin Sucks and is the founder of Spin Sucks Pro. Join the Spin Sucks   community!

  • I love the example you shared of turning a negative experience in to a positive/learning experience. I’m sharing this with everyone today.

    Great post Gini!

  • Great post that highlights the double-edge sword social media brings to brand management. What about comments, tweets, etc. posted solely for their malicious intent that gain traction? If you have bad products or lousy service, you deserve the rants; but I believe companies are seeing more people willing to bash a company/brand just for the sake of something to say, all while hiding behind anonymity.

    • Paul – I think two things happen: 1) You’re absolutely right that if there is an operations issue, the complaints allow you to fix the situation, but 2) if people maliciously complain, your community (brand stewards/loyalists) begins to weed out those people for you. It’s actually more fun to sit back and watch people take down those people than for you to have to defend yourself. It’s quite magical, actually.

  • I can feel the fear for some companies to open themselves to social media in this way.

    For instance, apparently faked falls/injuries/etc. are on the rise in various retail outlets in these difficult economic times. People are seeking ways to extort money from companies in creative ways.

    The rest of us find out about this if it happens to make the news, or is showcased on 60 Minutes or something. The event can be contained, managed and resolved in relative obscurity.

    What is in place for companies who find ‘creative’ tactics like this employed out in the great wide open of their social media pages/sites? In addition to the time, energy, resources and costs related to managing the situation ~ it is all now playing out in the public eye, with the potential of being tweeted at the speed of light, misinterpreted, etc.

    In the minds of some, the risks may still outweigh the benefits until more controls are in place.

    • Sally, I always recommend to clients (or when I speak) that people just pay attention (listen) to what is being said about them online. This isn’t any different than how people complain in the “old days.” Companies need to respond the same way they would through more traditional methods.

    • Debra Bethard-Caplick

      Sally, the problem that these companies face is that the conversation that is social media is going to go on with or without them, and if they don’t get out there and engage, they are at the mercy of whoever chooses to talk to them. This is a case of “silence is not golden.”

  • I devote a small section of my own website (used to promote my services as a social media consultant / manager / coach) to this and other web-specific topics. Prospective clients have an awful lot to get used to before they are comfortable on the ‘net.

    (I’ll leave out the links – if you’re interested you can find them on my site, main link with my name)

    I think it’s vital to confront these sorts of issues head-on in order to make your clients more savvy. Many of mine have been well trained by old media in the ways of messaging and image. They have to unlearn this stuff before they’ll be successful at social media – and often before they’ll even hire me.

    It’s a tough sell. But given that social media has a great ability to level the playing field between big and small biz, I think this is vital to realizing the potential of the new world we live in.

    How do I get them to let go? It’s easiest with bars and restaurants because what I do is spend time in a place full of happy people who have made the space their own, chatting with the owners about the experience their customers have created for themselves. Other business, to be honest, are much harder and I don’t have a good answer.

    • Erik, like I mention to Sally above, this isn’t so much about participation as it is about listening. If companies are listening to the good, the bad, and the neutral, they’re armed with how to respond in a way that they’re comfortable doing so. How they respond is up to them…as long as they respond.

  • Gini,

    I liked the story but your question is moot. Those scared of letting go in the online world are still on line. If not engaged they have no way to respond to negatives. THe moral of the story was not only turning positive into negative, it was giving a forum for both positive and negative so either can be correctly positioned.

    • Barry – BINGO!! That’s exactly what I was saying to Sally and Erik.

  • Love this discussion – this topic is more relevant than many want to admit.

    Don’t avoid engagement because you fear the negative comments. If you are not speaking for yourself in the social media world – others are doing it unsolicited on your behalf.

    I heard an interesting comment on NPR this morning that social media use for companies without traditional brick and mortar establishments is more challenging, and may not be an appropriate way to spend marketing dollars. I respectfully disagree and think all the more reason to create your community virtually – as we see done successfully by so many.

    Thank you, Gini, for a timely and significant discussion.

    • Arminda – I do more than respectfully disagree! We don’t have brick and mortar. The ONLY marketing we do for Arment Dietrich is online. We’d never get to where we are right now with the more traditional methods because a) we don’t have the cash and b) we don’t have the time. I love NPR, but that’s baloney.

      • Baloney is right! And since neither you nor I eat baloney – it’s no wonder we disagree! Don’t you just love bucking the trend and proving how right you are in the face of an “expert” baloney slinger?

        • I called baloney on Steve Strauss (USA Today) last year when he wrote that small businesses shouldn’t use social media. He had four reasons to support his thinking so I gave him four reasons he was wrong. He called and interviewed me, wrote another story, and now we’re friends. You should totally do the same to NPR!

  • I thought the companies have never been able to control their brands — even if they have very much tried to do it.

    • Mikko – you are 100 percent correct! Perhaps I should have said “the perception that you have control is over.”

  • Pingback: Found Friday: 2 great posts on corporate blogging | Hyten Content()

  • Pingback: Prekės ženklai priklauso mums()

  • Pingback: New Windsurfing Gear and the Cluetrain Manifesto -()

  • Pingback: Get Rich Quick! Lose Weight Tomorrow! | Spin Sucks()

  • Juliwilson789

    information to be shared it is also good to stay open to it.