Brand Identity in the Age of Social Media

I had the opportunity at a recent academic conference to present my research on the influence of social media. I co-wrote the paper with my professors and was given a central role in the study’s examination of large organizations’ control over their reputations. The study was accepted for a conference hosted by my undergraduate alma mater, at which I presented.

My presentation centered on the way social media is leveling the playing field of mass communication for nearly everyone about virtually anything. In 2017, we’re experiencing capabilities in communications far beyond anything available even 10 years ago. Brand supporters and trolls can disseminate messages as broadly as top tier companies with the most experienced brand managers. Through various communication platforms, individual opinions—popular or obscure, insightful or ignorant, owned or anonymous—can be published for all to see.

In today’s highly connected, postmodern world, easy access by consumers and critics to brand narratives can certainly provide influence. Over 500 years ago, Gutenberg’s printing press inspired the masses to read and write. People eventually learned to teach themselves and others; one major effect was religious revolution in which clergy were essentially undermined by individual capabilities made possible by the printing press. Spirituality changed forever. In at least one way, the effect of social media is behaving similarly to that of the printing press: participants of the new medium are enabled with immediate access and engagement to information. Consumers today can interpret brand identities, disperse information and influence consumer-buyer decisions like they never could before.

In addition to traditional business communications strategies, professional organizations must now also master social media and its various platforms in order to be heard popularly and to retain control of their brand. Part of that includes learning the language of social media with sufficient fluency to relate to the world online; recognizing trending pop-culture phenomena, hashtags, emoji and internet memes gives brands social credibility in an age when many consumers live online.

Findings from the recent Sprout Social Index show data on what consumers like in a brand identity

During the Q & A portion of my presentation, a professor asked why large organizations don’t just use social media in the same sarcastic and humorous way by which many internet memes gain virality. I answered that aside from target market and image strategies, brand integrity may be at stake. My response was unsatisfying to many of the academics in the hall. When a brand is on the receiving end of prominent, image-damaging social media posts, the natural tendency is to draft a response meant to defend reputation or correct misconceptions and gain millions of impressions and popular approval at the same time. If such communication, however, lies too far outside the organization’s brand identity and communication strategy, it is often preferable to indirectly address the issue by bolstering approved communications and brand messaging—acting in accordance with brand integrity and dignity to contradict social media hearsay.

Without a robust digital communications plan, brands are susceptible to the fickle influences and opinions shared on social. Brand managers can be prepared for this by knowing how and how not to participate; otherwise they might allow digital influencers to shape their messaging.

Developing a strong and active social media presence helps in controlling brand identity. Many brands are on social media but few develop the voice and outline the plan for an effective, well-managed social media agenda that allows them to extend brand recognition and bolster brand identity. It’s easy to be reactive on social, giving in to trolls’ negative remarks or adapting brand responses to meet the demands of others. Establishing a proactive and equanimous presence like Wendy’s and Bay Area Rapid Transit’s, which leverage trending issues in a consistent voice that invites positive engagement, is more likely to maintain brand integrity and gain positive attention.

My presentation concluded that social media not only provides value to brands by increasing exposure and engagement, it can be a very real method of solidifying brand identity and even defending it from external influences. Today this medium is as commonplace as print, radio and television, but it’s infinitely more accessible to consumers. Independent parties on social can affect brands and organizations by what they praise and protest. Recognizing that individuals can easily express these influential opinions and planning for it by maintaining a strong social media presence founded on brand integrity allows brands to retain control and further establish their values and credibility, even considering consumers’ heightened communications capabilities today.

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