Five Steps for Consumer Brands to Earn Social Currency

Major consumer brands still have a lot to learn as social tools continue to proliferate. How to stand out and profit in an @anywhere world.

Five Steps to Social Currency
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Popularity. You can't just request it. As companies amass ever-larger collections of Facebook fans, Twitter followers, and YouTube audiences, they should ask themselves one question: What are we doing with them? "There is a lot of wasted effort in social media," says Erich Joachimsthaler, managing director at Vivaldi Partners, an international brand consultancy. "We forget that these programs have to pay into something, a shared value or a social context where the product actually gets used."

What's valuable isn't mere buzz but what Joachimsthaler calls "social currency." "There's more to 'social' than social media," he says. A new study by Vivaldi Partners and Lightspeed Research, which fielded the data, examines more than 60 companies and assesses customers' brand affiliations, advocacy, and sense of community, among other factors, for how they create true value for the companies, no matter whether it's online or off. The results reveal some surprising insights about the limits of social media. Most notably, smug, stunt-driven apps, games, and videos generate buzz but little else. So what does work? We combed through Vivaldi's data to find the most intriguing lessons. Here are the new rules for the game.

1. Advocates Trump Followers

Dunkin' Donuts has 80% fewer Facebook and Twitter followers than Starbucks. Game over? Hardly. Dunkin' Donuts fans are 35% more likely to recommend the brand, according to the Vivaldi-Lightspeed study. Whereas Starbucks spends its energy telegraphing its superiority (and by extension, its fans' good taste) — "If it's still not perfect, you must not be in a Starbucks" — Dunkin' takes a more advocacy-driven approach. Its director of interactive and relationship marketing, David Tryder, has just two rules for his online campaigns: make them fun and make them cheap. Promotions are built around turning real people into online celebrities and then endorsers. For instance, a quickie contest for customers to submit pics of themselves drinking iced coffee during the winter was matched with an in-store discount. One-hundred-forty submissions ultimately generated 3.9 million total product plugs through posts and status updates. Dunkin's online-only create-the-next-doughnut contest drew 290,674 different entries this year and has become an annual event. These initiatives help explain why people are 50% more likely to have heard good things about Dunkin' than Starbucks. "It's about all the interesting little things that let fans engage," Tryder says.

2. Context Matters

What do beer drinkers talk about? Not what brewers think they will, the study concludes. Who cares if a beer is triple-hopped in an ultra-cold bottle? "Product and packaging innovations do not help create relevance in this consumer's daily life," Joachimsthaler says. What's important is the bonding or "social context" during consumption. Anheuser-Busch's ballyhooed bud.tv, an original Web-video site, tacitly encouraged being a solitary Web potato — and quietly folded last year. Similarly, those Bud Light Lime ads on the Weather Channel's iPhone app won't help partiers reach the beach. Bud's attempt to brand "fan cans" in collegiate colors for tailgating was the right kind of bonding idea, though, sadly for Bud, it failed when colleges feared the cans would encourage underage drinking. Even so, who wouldn't share the tale of that time their beer was confiscated?

3. Not Every Brand Should be Social

Mass-market brands that are positioned based on functional superiority, such as Gillette, aren't likely to see much upside in social currency. The shaving brand inspires great loyalty: 96% of respondents in the Vivaldi-Lightspeed study tout Gillette's good quality and reliability. So what more is there to say? That may be a good thing for the Gillettes of the world. "Conversation might lead to a discussion of downsides such as price and alternative products and brands," says Markus Zinnbauer, a director at Vivaldi. Yet Gillette has succumbed to the siren song of social tools in a series of supposedly humorous YouTube videos featuring cartoon characters giving tips on how to "manscape" your nether regions. Glib koans such as "When there's no underbrush, the tree looks taller" prove the point: Social isn't for everyone.

4. Social Tools are a Means, Not an End

Axe knows how to push the pulse points of hormonal young men, from posting "censored" print ads of sexy women to virtual prank shows worthy of CollegeHumor. But "very few people would say Axe definitely helps me in the mating game," as Joachimsthaler dryly notes. The Vivaldi-Lightspeed study concludes that Axe's mastery of the social-media game doesn't translate as strongly into meaningful talk or an ardent defense when compared with a brand such as Clinique, because the Axe audience knows that it's all a goof.

By contrast, Clinique's more instructive approach — for example, YouTube how-to tutorials on applying makeup — has earned it stronger social currency. "Educating and empowering users is part of our process," says Emily Culp, VP of Clinique global digital. To do that, the company also chooses 20 "insiders" a year, customers who post candid, unedited product demos and critiques. The results more than speak for themselves. "Clinique has moved away from finding a core influencer," Joachimsthaler says, "to converting anyone into a brand evangelist."

5. Gimmicks Marginalize Trust

Last year, Wendy's launched the "You Know When It's Real" campaign, with commercial spots, online games, and contests highlighting how its never-frozen patties are cooked to order. Burger King created the Whopper Sacrifice, asking its fans to drop 10 friends on Facebook to get a free hamburger, the latest in a long string of Internet-sensation stunts going back to 2003's Subservient Chicken. Today, BK's fickle fans have moved on, but customers trust Wendy's products much more, according to the Vivaldi-Lightspeed study. "We let the product be the hero," says Wendy's senior VP of communications Denny Lynch. Wendy's social tools, created by Kaplan Thaler, all tied into the campaign. A generic frozen patty is the puck in the Web hockey game, and an online competition to encourage bacon fanatics to test the new smoked Applewood burger reached an estimated 250,000 foodies, says Kaplan Thaler's digital managing director Myles Kleeger. "By using expert opinions, we added value in a way that doesn't come across like shilling," he says. Twice as many Wendy's patrons would pay a premium for its products when compared with the King, says Vivaldi-Lightspeed. BK's ploys, created by ad stars such as Crispin Porter + Bogusky and the Barbarian Group, may do more for those agencies' social currency than Burger King's. "The BK campaign might be funny," says Joachimsthaler, "but it doesn't motivate me to have a hamburger at BK today."

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24 Comments

  • simon_hamer

    Fascinating article.
    I wonder if it just states that in corporates there are a lot of companies who have no idea how to build a brand using social networking and social media, or even worse have hired someone incompetent to do it for them.

  • Jennifer

    The key importance I take from this article is to talk to consumers by placing yourself in their shoes, does anyone agree?

  • Nick Rovisa

    This is a great article and uses the same premise that all marketing does and has for years. Put out a great product/service, get people to champion it (advocates) then monitor and repeat. Overly-gimmicky stuff won't lead to sales or, more importantly, trust in the brand. - @nickrovisa

  • Tony Wood

    This article eludes to the fact that agency's need to stop trying to "do social media." The right social tool for the job depends on what the brand is looking to accomplish. Continuing to seek out "best practices" is a misnomer. Followers won't ever get it right because they don't know what they are seeking. -@theroyaldirt

  • Barry Quinn

    The Clinique vs Axe discussion is not very clear. Two totally different groups, each with there own relationship to the idea of "mating" and grooming etc. What works for one would not work for the other.

    I'm not sure Axe would be better served by a social media campaign that "translated into a meaningful talk". I'm not even sure young men would ever become a brand evangelist in the same way a woman might be of Clinique.

    Axe and Clinique only appear to be in the same category, but in truth they are selling their consumers something very different

  • Kai Platschke

    surprising results and nice visualization§ thanks. especially the description of the burger king whoppr sacrifice is appreciated, as this served man clients and especially agencies (!) as ultimate example. Man, we have to think further and cleverer!!!

  • Daniel van Leeuwen

    This article is so on the money. It drives me crazy when brands jump on the social media bandwagon without any thought or planning. Why use the number of followers/friends as a metric of success when you do nothing with them.

    Ultimately, I think the blame lies with media and creative agencies who advice clients on these type of things. The industry is infatuated with winning awards and being different that sometimes the most effective (and sometimes simple) solution is overlooked.

  • richard leivenberg

    Thanks for the article. It couldn't be more timely. I have clients who want more and more and more followers, tweeters, etc., but I couldnt agree more with finding a way to create social currency out of your social network that is important; as important as a direct mail piece of yore. I learned a lot.

  • richard leivenberg

    Thanks for the article. It couldn't be more timely. I have clients who want more and more and more followers, tweeters, etc., but I couldnt agree more with finding a way to create social currency out of your social network that is important; as important as a direct mail piece of yore. I learned a lot.

  • richard leivenberg

    Thanks for the article. It couldn't be more timely. I have clients who want more and more and more followers, tweeters, etc., but I couldnt agree more with finding a way to create social currency out of your social network that is important; as important as a direct mail piece of yore. I learned a lot.

  • richard leivenberg

    Thanks for the article. It couldn't be more timely. I have clients who want more and more and more followers, tweeters, etc., but I couldnt agree more with finding a way to create social currency out of your social network that is important; as important as a direct mail piece of yore. I learned a lot.

  • richard leivenberg

    Thanks for the article. It couldn't be more timely. I have clients who want more and more and more followers, tweeters, etc., but I couldnt agree more with finding a way to create social currency out of your social network that is important; as important as a direct mail piece of yore. I learned a lot.

  • richard leivenberg

    Thanks for the article. It couldn't be more timely. I have clients who want more and more and more followers, tweeters, etc., but I couldnt agree more with finding a way to create social currency out of your social network that is important; as important as a direct mail piece of yore. I learned a lot.

  • richard leivenberg

    Thanks for the article. It couldn't be more timely. I have clients who want more and more and more followers, tweeters, etc., but I couldnt agree more with finding a way to create social currency out of your social network that is important; as important as a direct mail piece of yore. I learned a lot.

  • richard leivenberg

    Thanks for the article. It couldn't be more timely. I have clients who want more and more and more followers, tweeters, etc., but I couldnt agree more with finding a way to create social currency out of your social network that is important; as important as a direct mail piece of yore. I learned a lot.

  • richard leivenberg

    Thanks for the article. It couldn't be more timely. I have clients who want more and more and more followers, tweeters, etc., but I couldnt agree more with finding a way to create social currency out of your social network that is important; as important as a direct mail piece of yore. I learned a lot.

  • Ryan Alley

    I would also add a point, “not all social media is created equally.” Far too often, we hear companies say, “Let’s do some social media,” without thinking about why they are doing it, and what they and their customers will get out of it. A Facebook page or a YouTube video serves a totally different purpose than a private online community; strategies must be matched with the brand.

    Social media lets you bridge the gap between brands and their customers and build an army of advocates, but as we’ve seen from some of the highly publicized “brand-asters,” attempts to connect with consumers can go horribly wrong if not on target because consumers can to amplify their messages across the web. Rather than focusing on what to do if a social attack happens, brands need to work a bit more preemptively. If you want to ensure that the user experience is meeting your customers’ expectations, go right to the source! Brands must consider both their objectives and their audience before diving into the social media game, and can use social media tools on a smaller scale to “test” campaigns and ideas before they launch to the masses. Microsoft’s Project Muse is a great example- they brought a group of passionate consumers into the inner circle and gave them a seat at the conference table. Although it can be scary, giving your customers the opportunity to give input into your product design, campaign development and social media strategy will not only better inform your end product, but also mobilize some pretty informed, passionate advocates on your brand’s behalf.

    Ryan Alley
    www.thinkpassenger.com

  • Sean Robbins

    Great article, love the graphical renderings. Not so sure about your point regarding BK's advertising doing more for their agencies than they do for BK ... maybe to marketing professionals who actually know which agencies BK uses and already don't like BK.

  • Duncan Wardle

    Really good piece on the lessons for brands engaging in the social media environment