Mercedes-Benz and McDonald’s spend millions of dollars marketing their brands to make them visible, relevant, different, cool, or perhaps ... to make them sell. Today the two very different companies are investing more in a similar strategy to make their medallions and their Arches "social." They hope Facebook Likers and Twitter Followers will generate social buzz leading to better brand images and ultimately selling more more cars and burgers (respectively). The marketing mantra now in Stuttgart and Oak Brook is to stimulate positive "conversations" and word-of-mouth about their brands.
To what extent these efforts work is the subject of an all-too familiar debate between CFOs and CMOs, clients, and agencies, advertising and PR pros. It is not easy to compare Mercedes’ and McDonalds’ social marketing strategies or "brand value." But a new study by Vivaldi Partners and Lightspeed Research (Download the full PDF) suggests that leading car brands achieve higher levels of "social currency" than top fast-food brands; therefore, automotive marketers, more than their quick-serve restaurant counterparts, should invest in and focus on the new "metric" as a way to build brand value and sales.
Brand social currency is defined as the extent to which people share the brand and/or information about the brand as part of their everyday social lives at work or at home. Here are five lessons from the study:
1. The Ultimate Social Currency Machine … BMW will always have higher social currency than Burger King … will always be a cooler brand
The data show that certain categories, for example, cars, airlines and technology, have greater social currency than personal care and fast-food. Why? We will talk about our iPads and Beemers (BMW: 81% top score on "conversation," one of the six dimensions of social currency) with friends and colleagues more than we will talk about our Fusion shave gel and Whoppers. Macs more than Big Macs! And tweet and blog about them more too. Cars will always embody and express our social selves to a greater degree than hamburgers, or so we hope.
Jonah Berger, Assistant Professor at The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania argues that brands can be "social epidemics" and discusses BMW’s appeal:
"BMW is a strong brand that is closely tied to the owner’s identity. Given that it’s a status symbol, talking about owning a BMW makes the owner look good, so he or she will talk about the brand to self-enhance."
2. Premium brands have higher social currency
The findings generally show that brands with higher ticket prices will have higher social currency scores. It is possible though that consumers assign a higher rating to the expensive things they have bought in order to justify, rationalize these decisions.
The study also concludes that social currency correlates to brand loyalty and that brands with a higher social currency score will command a higher price premium. (Most marketing experts agree on the link between loyalty and premium pricing levels.)
3. Transportation brands have higher social currency
Four of the top five social currency scores (among over 60 brands across a dozen categories) are from brands we ride or fly. And the fifth-ranked brand, Apple, one could argue, "magically" transports us to a variety of worlds on-line and off.
Brand Social Currency Score:
1. BMW 69%
Automobiles have always been seen by their makers and drivers as an expression of the buyer’s personality and status. We spend a lot of time in them for work and play according to Berger. Car companies design vehicles and brands to appeal to certain psychographic and social segments.
In the airline category, it is also notable that the newer breed of airline (JetBlue, Virgin and Southwest) which celebrates their people, passengers and fun, and not transportation, received higher social currency scores than the traditional carriers. Perhaps the upstart brands were social before there was social.
4. Talkable brands have higher social currency
We talk about cars and computers with friends and at the office and feel comfortable doing so. We think nothing of sharing details about these brand experiences and features. We give and receive recommendations (Mercedes: 81% top score on "Advocacy"). But we do less talking and less recommending about tacos, razors and beers. Our driving and work machines are more interesting and cool to chat about off-line and on Facebook.
Philip Kotler, Professor of International Marketing at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management says, "BMW is the car that drivers talk about, not passengers. BMW owns the phrase ‘driving performance.’ I don't like to be a passenger in this car because the driver has all the fun and I just get tossed around."
5. "Durable" brands have higher social currency
Vehicles and technology are big investments that are supposed to last for a while. We buy a warranty, service, a long-term relationship with the brand after plonking down our "hard currency". These brands which get us to work, help us work, help us play, support our families, endure with us, are inherently more social and currency-rich. But drive-through restaurants, basic beers and daily deodorants—which are consumed in the most utilitarian way, disposable products and experiences—naturally possess lower social currency.
BMW AG’s Chairman of the Board, Dr. Norbert Reithofer, recently discussed the brand’s enduring value and cited its number 1 Social Currency score.
Erich Joachimsthaler, CEO of Vivaldi Partners and creator of the study, says BMW’s success is no accident. "No other automotive company has so strongly codified emotional and self-expressive benefits to such a broad consumer audience. Its core identity values are dynamic, challenging and cultured. These identity elements create meaning to a broad audience, independent of the traditional perspective of lifestyle in terms of economic or social class."
Corporate brand leaders at BMW, Jet Blue and Apple should continue to invest in products, services, experiences and communications that lead to greater social currency because they will realize the pay-off. The Burger Kings and the Gillettes of the world should still work to be socially relevant, but for them trying to build up social currency is not as easy and probably not as smart.