Digital MarketingStrategiesParenting Your Brand

Parenting Your Brand

Who's more at risk: little Johnny on MySpace, or that child known as your brand?

You can’t read the paper these days without seeing yet another item raising concerns or watch-outs about the long-term consequences of kids posting their rich-media résumés (let’s leave it at that) on

Such coverage points to the ease of discovering revealing teen content through search, the risk of sexual predators following a digital trail, even the difficulty of teens finding jobs in a world where employers are running reference checks on MySpace, Facebook, and Flickr.

As a parent with a blog dedicated to my kids, you can bet our huge stash of diapers I’m asking hard questions about how much information we make public on the Web.

Fear, Engagement, and Long-Overdue Web Awareness

But I’m asking other hard questions as well, especially as a marketer who’s paid to act like a protective parent to another child: my brand.

Fear begets not only attention but also engagement. There’s a silver lining for the marketing community amidst the social media fear factor, though. Thanks to the MySpace wake-up call, parents and just about everyone else are learning a lot more about how the Web really works.

The Web is interconnected. It’s searchable. It’s rich with high-impact multimedia, especially video. It feeds a bevy of smaller devices. It mixes and mashes and commingles and flirts with other content sources. Most important, the Web is inseparable from the lives and social currency of the younger generation.

But this raises a really important, long-overdue question for marketers and brand managers: are our brands safe online?

As with our kids, our brands face comparable risks of exposure, ruined reputations, eroded equity, and compromised positioning via the Web. Most of us are too busy watching TV to fully appreciate this reality.

A brand’s credibility and reputation are the product of many factors, but more and more the public, highly viral digital trail of consumer-generated media (CGM) is moving to the front of the line in shaping brand perceptions.

Our brand equity is the sum total of our search results. Increasingly, search result shelf space is dominated by CGM from blogs, message boards, forums, communities, YouTube, and other expression platforms.

Stars and Scars

So how do we manage brand equity in such an environment? One critical difference between being the parent of a brand versus that of a teenager is the brand parent has neither the authority nor standing to simply tell consumers to yank that page off the Web. After all, the consumer — not the marketer — is now in control, despite what our lawyers keep insisting in Neanderthaloid memos.

What we can do is listen, and listen well. The simple truth is we’re accountable for everything that’s said about our brands. If we aren’t listening, we can’t properly manage. Encouragingly, the digital trail that shows up on message boards, stimulating offline word of mouth or feeding search results, is quickly evolving into a highly revealing (often incriminating) brand scorecard.

This scorecard represents a mix of “stars and scars.” Stars reflect the good things we do; scars reflect our neglect, eroded trust, or outright stupidity. Most negative publicity about MySpace is centered on the lifelong scars teens inflict upon themselves by their reckless exposure of dumb behavior.

With billions of brand-specific stars and scars dotting the Web, marketers now have buckets of data points against which to make and indict key decisions. Importantly, marketers own many of the key levers that precipitate or influence brand love (stars) or criticism (scars). Our problem is we don’t know how to connect the dots.

The key to brand management in the new marketing era is interpreting and exploiting the stars and scars to shape optimal marketing practices and business processes. For example:

  • Reengineer customer service. As we learned last week with AOL customer service being featured on the “Today” show, customer service is one of the biggest causes of indelible public scars in the CGM space. It can also be the catalyst of wonderfully viral stars if you make the right investment. CMOs must start thinking about “contact us” pages and consumer affairs as the heart and soul of marketing. Moreover, they should use CGM to align, offer incentives for, and reward that organization.
  • Reward or punish agencies. In less than two years, advertising agencies will be compensated or punished based on whether they meet a target volume and ratio of CGM-based stars and scars. In fact, we’ll have the equivalent of negative GRPs. I say this in part because a significant percentage of online conversation reflects buzz about advertising and marketing campaigns, and the digital trail often negates core assumptions behind the ad strategy. More stars, more business; more scars, less business.
  • Select and reward suppliers. The Web also leaves a visible trail of stars and scars that directly implicate suppliers. Notwithstanding the Jeff Jarvis incident, a large percentage of Dell’s scars stem from suppliers poorly executing rebate programs. Sloppy database marketing vendors or poorly constructed Web sites can trigger horrific negative conversation about brands. Auditing the consumer comment trail can help hold suppliers accountable.
  • Build Web sites. Brand Web sites are mission-critical word-of-mouth springboards. Much of the stars and scars content on the Web stems from how well sites are designed, managed, and nurtured. Blogs like GM’s FastLane trigger huge levels of positive conversation relative to typical brand Web sites. Sites that embrace feedback, comments, or one-to-one interaction generally get extra stars in the CGM space. Again, these are all critical in the quest for public stars on the forehead.
  • Create great events and products. The brands that really win in the CGM space, and preserve and build reputation, are those that perform so well that they create organic talk value. Everything we do in marketing — product development, offline event development, breakthrough TV copy — should keenly focus on the potential stars and scars that may result from that campaign.

At the end of the day, we’re playing the same game we played in kindergarten: maximize the number of stars on our foreheads. The big difference on the Web is those stars (or scars) are permanent.

Like newly enlightened parents concerned about the long-term scars of Johnny participating on MySpace, brand parents must be ever-attentive to how stars and scars shape long-term brand equity and reputation.

Meet Pete at Search Engine Strategies in San Jose, August 7-10, 2006, at the San Jose McEnery Convention Center.

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