Brand building

You may not have realized it yet, but the days of you being in complete control of your brand are long gone.

“Companies have ceded the control of their brands to their customers,” says Bo Bothe, president and chief creative officer of BrandExtract. “There’s no way that a company can control all the messages and all the information about it in the outside world. The brand is no longer about me just telling you about my company, it’s about us having a regular, ongoing conversation about the value that my company brings to you as the customer.”

By using social media such as LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, direct e-mail and other options in conjunction with traditional marketing efforts, you can improve both the perception of your brand and your company’s relationships with your customers.

Smart Business spoke with Bothe about how to use social media to attract, engage and serve, rather than to sell, and how giving away useful information can influence the way people perceive your brand.

How has branding changed in the past several years?

The tools always change, but consumer behavior is shifting even more significantly. CEOs are no longer in absolute control of their message. If you are looking to build a relationship with key stakeholders, you don’t do it the same way you used to.

It used to be that customers trusted you with a handshake or through your advertising. Today, customers find trust a different way. With so much information available online, people connect with a brand in a different way. It’s now about how you share information with them, and that’s a big shift.

What do you need to think about before jumping into social media?

There are three things to consider. First, does your organization embrace the media and does it have the ability to generate the content? This includes the need to assess your employees’ ability to embrace the technology. They just may not care enough about a topic to talk about it that much.

The second thing is the audience’s desire. Is your audience using the media? Are they even looking to engage your company online? Do your research. Figure out what they care about and whether your customers are looking for the kind of information you have to offer.

Finally, you have to have a plan to manage your social media. Knowing what the choices are is only the beginning. Do I need to hire someone and who should it be? What media are best for our company? Can I do this internally? A company has to have a strategy for answering these questions and more. Each platform is best suited for a different type of interaction. A blog can be a very effective tool but should include very different information than what you would communicate through Twitter. The important thing is to control the content, as you would any brand messaging.

Even if a company decides not to actively engage in social media at this time, it must be aware of what options are out there — and what, if anything, the marketplace is saying online about the company and the experiences they have had with it. This allows you to address both negative and positive online conversations head on.

How does using social media help keep a company in touch with its customers?

Social media provides an outlet for you to constantly communicate with your customer in a way that’s not threatening. If you’re on Twitter and you’re continually promoting a product, people aren’t going to listen to you. But if you’re on Twitter and you’re providing useful information, interesting links, stories built around what you do, or you’ve got a blog that’s providing useful information, it’s going to let people know your brand is genuinely committed to their success.

Authenticity goes a long way in today’s world. If customers don’t feel you’re being authentic, they’re not going to do business with you. If they don’t feel as if you are in it for them, or they can’t get the information they want immediately from your Web site or other digital media, they’re gone.

How can a company provide useful information to its customers?

As an example, Scotts Miracle-Gro lets you sign up for a newsletter with helpful lawn care tips. They will e-mail you when it’s a good time to plant something, or when to put down fertilizer. They’re providing information and supporting their sales channels. They’re not asking you to just click on anything and buy it (though a purchase is just one click away).

They’re being seen as a thought leader and as someone who’s going to share information freely and openly with you. People purchase brands that are focused on helping them be successful by giving them information they can use — in many cases for free.

There’s a twofold benefit: The company receives the goodwill generated from providing information, and it also gets the customer’s e-mail address and important information that helps it understand customer needs.

What are the other benefits in engaging customers with your brand?

You can get the pulse of your customers and really understand what products they want and what they’re talking about, and use these tools to have an ongoing conversation with them. That can help you figure out what products you need to launch, or what markets you need to get into and, in some cases, out of.

Using social media gives you the ability to track and manage your brand by having a conversation. Customers will tell you what you need to know about your product or service to make effective decisions faster. You can then make adjustments on that, and that’s ultimately what this is about — building and managing a brand.

Bo Bothe is the president and chief creative officer of BrandExtract, an integrated branding and communications firm that guides growing companies by providing strategic branding solutions, marketing communications, advertising, print and interactive services. Reach him at [email protected] or (713) 942-7959 or visit www.brandextract.com.