Brand has changed a lot in the digital age, from complete ownership by the company establishing the brand, now to complete ownership by consumers who engage with the brand. Consumers may start with that initial brand message but ultimately embrace it unexpected ways which ultimately do define the brand. In other words, you can want your brand to stand for something, but it won’t if the people you’re targeting don’t buy into that. JCPenney and Ron Johnson’s attempt to remake the chain appeal to a younger, hipper audience are a now-classic example of how it’s always consumers who win when it comes to who ultimately gets to define your brand.
Since the time when consumers firmly took the reins from companies over who gets to define the brand, there has been the additional complication of Millennials, who want more from their brands than just values or attributes. They want their brands to stand for something. At the same time, their willingness to engage with brands has shifted away from passively consuming advertising to wanting to interact more directly – and they prefer to do that primarily through digital channels like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, etc.
Brands now have to operate in this interactive space. To-date, most of them haven’t figured that out, and the old tools of brand and marketing haven’t served them well in navigating the shift. But in the end it’s not about the tools so much as redefining how those tools are used.
The Term “Persona” Has Baggage
In marketing, the term “persona” has been so overused that if it comes up in conversation today it is more likely to be met with groans than with enthusiasm. It was originally applied to consumer segments, as a mechanism for bringing life to what was ultimately a collection of averaged attributes. This was helpful in turning a pile of data into something that people could relate to, but I think part of its downfall was that it created a false sense that the company “knew” its customers, because “Look, my customer segmentations have names and jobs and pretty stock photo images attached to them, so I must know exactly who they are!”
The problem is that averages (even in carefully crafted customer segmentations) hide a lot of variability. I might fit most of the profile attributes of a soccer mom, but if you called me that I would laugh at you. “Soccer mom” was initially most useful to car companies looking to sell minivans – which in turn became such a shortcut way to identify a soccer mom that it became a self-reinforcing attribute.
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Me, on the other hand – I would rather die than own a minivan and am proud of the fact that I have nearly finished navigating my kids’ non-driving years having never owned one. If you tried to target me based on the assumption that I followed all of the attributes of a soccer mom, rather than just “most” of them, you would be demonstrating to me your actual lack of understanding of me and your total irrelevancy to my life and needs. When brands operate by assuming that the persona is the segment, they lose because there are just too many places where you can get it wrong, and with the attention span of today’s consumers, if you get it wrong even once, that may be the only chance a consumer gives you.
When it comes to brand, though, persona is not total garbage – if we can get past the baggage associated with how it was used in the past. “Persona” in customer segmentation was trying to put one face on something that actually represented a large group of unique individuals. That was always doomed to fail. Brand, though, should be clean and concise and cohesive – and should only represent one thing. One company, one brand. And therefore, one face.
But wait, you say. It may be one brand, but it is represented by many different people. In retail, there are potentially millions of store associates out there representing the brand every day – before we even start bringing marketing people into play. So how do you reconcile one face against all of these faces?
One Face, Many Voices
Yes it’s true that store associates are a varied group and hopefully bring their own personalities to the brand in a way that is authentic to both themselves and the brand. I would distinguish that by thinking about “one face but many voices”. I’ll come back to that in a couple paragraphs.
But let’s go back to the idea that Millennials (and, let’s face it, Gen Z and increasingly a growing number of older generations that have given in to the social media void). They want to engage with brands in digital channels first. And they are very adept at blocking or ignoring any of the traditional forms of “interruption media” where brands historically had their chance to make a case for consumers to get to know them.
Digital – especially social media – is the great leveler when it comes to brand. Unless you want to confuse customers, you pretty much only get one social profile for your whole company. And your social profile is the same size and is fighting for consumer attention with the same exact set of tools as anybody else (sometimes juiced by ad dollars, but again – easily ignored). When I talk to small retailers bemoaning how to compete against Amazon, my first question is, what are you doing on social media? Because the smallest small business looks exactly the same size as Amazon does on Facebook – the dimensions of your profile page are the same. What you get surfaced in a post is the same size.
You get one profile page for your brand. That’s it. Yes, brands often establish other accounts, sometimes for corporate giving, sometimes for recruiting, things that focus on different aspects of what the company is trying to accomplish. But when it comes to the flagship, “who are we and what do we stand for” brand communication, you get one page. One face. I haven’t seen any company try to avoid that flagship brand profile by giving over all brand communication to a bunch of individuals like “Jane Smith23, brand ambassador”. There is one brand and one face to that brand.
I have seen companies actually try to shut down all those thousands or millions of brand representatives that exist in stores or within corporate headquarters. I’ve seen them try to force everything back to the corporate message, trying to silence voices so that they don’t accidentally do something that is not “on brand” (or worse, embarrassing, offensive, or illegal). I understand the impulses that drive those behaviors – Taco Bell Nachos guy, anyone? But even though you pretty much have no choice but to fire a guy who posts pictures of himself allegedly peeing on a plate of nachos in what appears to be the restaurant’s kitchen or food storage area, there’s also a recognition that this one employee is (hopefully) not representative of the brand as a whole. There is definitely lack of judgment at play, whether just at the individual employee level, or at the level of the manager who hired him, but that’s different than an overall brand statement.
Over time, brands are getting better at working with this one face/many voices model. Walmart once experimented with a social profile of an alleged employee (some people suspected it was all made up) named Kevin. Kevin was supposed to offer insights into life as a Walmart employee (I would link to it but the profile is lost to the depths of Google, in part swamped by the fact that Walmart has a director of communications now who is also – coincidentally? – named Kevin). Kevin’s profile was one early attempt at providing a way for employees to both be themselves and a brand ambassador (no matter how cringeworthy and PR-washed his profile was).
The pendulum has swung far since then, with the most recent public attempt coming from Macy’s. The company created “Style Crew”, a way for employees to use both their own social savvy and the fact that they work for Macy’s in order to make some extra coin. Individual voices, supported by a brand.
A Brand Face, Not A Bland Face
This progress is all good. Brands should not be stifling the voices of their most passionate advocates – namely, the people who decided to tie their own economic fate to that of the company they represent. Employees. But all that progress has happened on the “many voices” side of the equation, not on the “one face” side.
When you look at brands’ social profiles, they are as corporate lawyer sanitized as you can get. Offend no one. Say nothing of meaning or import. Drive as relentlessly positive, sanitized message as possible. And then, if you’re not stuffing that feed full of posts exhorting how awesome your company is, you’d better be stuffing that feed full of products and promotions, because otherwise, why are we paying this social media intern anyway?
This is the state of brands’ faces. In the place where consumers are most likely to find them, brands are doing the least to get their attention. If Facebook is a cocktail party where everyone is chatting and joking and getting to know each other, your brand is “that guy” – the one going around talking about how awesome he is, and by the way do you want to buy some stuff from me?
The level of blandness is so bad, that when KFC – who has a natural, in-built brand persona in the Colonel, which they have been using to great effect – actually went viral and made news for unfollowing everyone on Twitter except for eleven people: six guys named Herb and the five former Spice girls, a reference to KFC’s recipe of “eleven herbs and spices”. And then they one-upped their own game, by rewarding the guy who first spotted it (the portrait they sent is truly awesome).
Personality is Effectively Free
What does KFC have that everyone else seems to lack? You guessed it: personality. Now, personality will only take you so far. At some point you have to execute on the promises made by that personality. If KFC is fun and edgy online, but then you go to a KFC restaurant and have a horrible experience, I would consider that a wasted opportunity. But guess what? That opportunity cost them the price of a social media intern (and the cost of a fantastically horrible painting, but that’s still way less than the equivalent spend on ad words required to get the same exposure).
And that’s the point. Other than the cost of a social media jockey, personality costs nothing to execute. It does require a strong brand to serve as a compass for both what is going to resonate and what is appropriate. And it requires some people who have been steeped in what the brand stands for enough that they can both come up with brilliant ideas like eleven “Herbs and Spices”, and also interact with others spontaneously on social media – as Wendy’s does very well.
It’s also probably not a coincidence that Wendy’s, like KFC, has a natural “persona” in the Wendy mascot. The company has not chosen to leverage her in that way (though consumers have), probably out of respect for the real Wendy, but that still works out just fine. It’s not about what Wendy’s wants in that regard, it’s about how consumers connect. As a new generation embraces the Wendy’s brand, a generation that is unfamiliar with the real Wendy’s backstory, then the brand has a mascot ready-made to come to life in digital spaces.
What If You Don’t Have a Natural Mascot?
Companies that don’t already have a built-in mascot don’t necessarily need to run out and gin one up. The face of a brand doesn’t need to have a literal face to resonate with consumers. The first place to focus is on brand values, and what those values imply about a personality. In other words, what kind of person would share these values?
There are other questions to ask, and things to think about, in creating a brand personality. And that will be my focus in this month’s series of articles. How do you define a brand personality? What is that personality’s values and passions? If your brand was a person, who would they be?
It wasn’t that long ago that these questions would’ve been scoffed at by anyone but the fluffiest of fluffy marketing people. In the age of digital, however, they are questions that could very well be the difference between customer relevancy and bankruptcy. And that’s not fluffy at all.