Attempts to tightly manage your brand online can backfire. Learn what to avoid.
If you think you can control your brand online, you're clueless.
The notion that a brand can be controlled is about as silly as worrying whether your spats are white and shiny before heading out to a business meeting. Keep in mind: anyone can create (or remix) digital media on a desktop for a few hundred bucks. Holding on to a fantasy that all communications about your company can be tightly managed is worse than crazy. It's a huge waste of resources and can actually damage your brand if you fight it by appearing to be a Luddite or, even worse, a brand that just doesn't get it.
Doubt me? For a great demonstration of how impossible it's become to control brand image, head on over to CollegeHumor.com and type the name of your alma mater into the picture search. I'll warn you now: chances are what you'll get isn't even remotely safe for work. Yet you can bet there are lots of college and university marketing directors who think they're doing a bang-up job of controlling how their brand is portrayed online. Not so much.
Many brand managers and marketers still don't comprehend that the Web isn't a broadcast medium. It's a conversation, a two-way channel for communication open to pretty much anyone. And while it may be possible to control the expression of your brand when it's coming from your company in the form of press releases, ads, logos, letterhead, and the like, once it gets on the Net, any illusion of control you might have is gone. People can blog about you, rank your products, remix your commercials...heck, they can even remix that logo animation you spent gazillions of bucks on just to get a few laughs.
What can you do? You can do what a lot of consumer marketers are doing and solicit user-created content to generate buzz. Brands like Doritos have used fan-created ads as their Super Bowl spots. CNN solicited questions from citizens for the great "YouTube Debate" this year, and political junkies and tricksters have even created their own mashup videos lampooning the candidates, such as the "Hilary 1984" clip that's been making the rounds. You could even make your clips freely available like Comedy Central does. Or you could fight it all and end up looking like a 21st century killjoy dork...and missing out on a lot of free advertising.
When Prince threatened to sue YouTube last year for allowing people to post unauthorized clips, mashups, and remixes, all in the interest of protecting his intellectual property and his quixotic quest to "reclaim" the Internet, he showed everyone just how clearly he didn't get what was going on. It's free advertising, oh nameless one!
A more recent example of cluelessness can be seen in the dustup between Quiznos and Subway. Subway is suing Quiznos over a contest the toasty-sandwich maker sponsored to get fans to make their own commercials poking fun at Subway. Apparently the amateur spots hurt the delicate feelings of the Subway management, and now Subway wants compensation for damages. Dumb move. Instead of suing, it should have sponsored its own contest in response to Quiznos' (riding the "response to" video wave). It would have come out looking a lot cooler than it did. Now it's just proving it's a dull company making dull sandwiches.
The hard, cold truth is this: it's too late. People can make their own content cheaply and quickly and can post it to a worldwide audience quicker than you can shout, "Cease and desist!" Once you put something into the mediasphere, it's out of your control. But that's not necessarily a bad thing. If people think about you enough to want to remix your identity, post clips of your stuff, or even create their own content about your company, be glad. It's better than being ignored. That's certain death for a brand.
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Sean Carton has recently been appointed to develop the Center for Digital Communication, Commerce, and Culture at the University of Baltimore and is chief creative officer at idfive in Baltimore. He was formerly the dean of Philadelphia University's School of Design + Media and chief experience officer at Carton Donofrio Partners, Inc.
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