Branding in the Social Media Age
Updated: May 19
We were supposed to connect with customers through Social Media. This was supposed to be our golden age of branding, but somehow things didn't turn out that way...
As Marketers we thought Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Tiktok would enable us to bypass traditional media and connect more effectively with customers. Wishing that we could attract huge audiences, brands have spent billions creating their own original creative content, but somehow consumers didn't pay attention.
So what happened? Social media seems to have weakened traditional branding techniques. It has united isolated sub-cultures into very influential crowd-cultures. But let's start with understanding what are crowd-cultures. Crowd culture is defined as diverse, widespread groups of people who join together in support of, or even opposition to, a brand. It is a creation of the digital age that produces digital communities and sub-cultures. And these crowd cultures create their own content - often so well that companies can't hope to compete. Individual persons today make videos that top the Youtube charts, kids film toy reviews that garner millions of views, and these are things that large cumbersome companies just cannot do. While this means that the impact of branded content is now called into question, counter cultures or crowd cultures have opened up a new alternative approach, cultural branding. Let's look at examples, Axe revived its brand by becoming an over-the-top cheerleader for the “lad” crowd that arose as a response to politically correct gender politics. Dove championed the other side of the divide, with campaigns that spoke to crowd culture concerns about unhealthy beauty standards for women.
Even though billions are spent on creating content, only three brands are in the YouTube Top 500. McDonald’s has 204,000 YouTube subscribers whereas PewDiePie has 41 million subscribers. Even Red Bull, which is considered the biggest in branded content success stories with a $2 billion annual branded content budget, has only 4.9 million subscribers, way behind dozens of crowd culture start-ups with production budgets under $100,000. Dude Perfect, started by five Texas university athletes who make videos of trick shots and goofy athletic feats, has eight million subscribers, three million more than Red Bull. This just proves that consumers have no interest in content that brands spit out. Very few people want it in their feed, rarely consuming it. In fact, many brands are struggling to unlock the apparent value of social media. Virality, buzz, memes, stickiness, and form factor became the default language of branding, but very few of those 'award winning' campaigns have had much long term success.
Brands start succeeding when they break through culture, and branding is absolutely a set of techniques that is designed to generate this cultural relevance. Crowd culture changes the rules of branding—which techniques work and which do not. Social media, however, allows the crowd to convert a niche conversation into mainstream beliefs. One example would be in the case of travel, where for generations people associated certain destinations (Florida, London, the Bahamas) as the places to vacation. Then with people sharing pictures and stories of the Maldives, Dubai, Patagonia, Seychelles, et al, the travel industry changed dramatically. Now suddenly, people were not only open but looking for alternatives to traditional destinations. Third, make an idea meaningful to as many people as possible.
Historically, cultural innovation flowed from the fringes of society—from isolated groups, social movements, and artistic circles that challenged mainstream norms and conventions. Companies and the mass media acted as intermediaries, diffusing these new ideas into the mass market and hoping to gain traction. But social media has changed everything. Understanding the cultural opportunity enables you to target crowd culture, and perhaps built one of your own.
By targeting novel ideologies flowing out of crowd cultures, brands can assert a point of view that stands out in the overstuffed media environment. The key is rather than trying to force a story on a captive audience, you need to build a story and product that is consistent with the desires of the social media crowd. Iconic brands are meant to be cultural innovators: They leapfrog the ideas of their categories to champion new ideologies that are meaningful and impactful to their customers.
The first model, mindshare branding, is one that companies have long relied on. It treats a brand as a set of psychological associations (benefits, emotions, personality). The second model, purpose branding, has become popular in the past decade. In it, a brand espouses values or ideals its customers share. A brand can sustain its cultural relevance by playing off particularly intriguing or contentious issues that dominate the media discourse related to an ideology, and this is what makes brands incredibly meaningful to creating culture in today's crowded media landscape.