Welcome to the social media era, where your brand has officially been occupied. The relationship between your image and your values is increasingly determined by your brand advocates. The future of your brand is subject to your community and its perceived values.
You once controlled who and what appeared in advertisements, but the rise of social media and user-generated content means that followers and fans often determine your brand’s image without your consent. When people go onto your social media pages, they see followers that chose you, not the models and celebrities you selected. People also imagine that your social followers reflect the values of your brand.
So who belongs to your brand tribe? How do you guide the values of this community?
The future of marketing must recognize the importance of in-group connections and what I call all-group values. When we finally blend the two, marketing will transcend from the hard sell of the past into an organic conversation that makes brands meaningful their communities. Here's how occupied brands are changing the future of marketing.
When people visit a brand’s social page, they see pictures and posts from members of an imagined fan community. This experience inspired an academic study "Beyond the "Like" Button: The Impact of Mere Virtual Presence on Brand Evaluations and Purchase Intentions in Social Media Settings" by marketing professor Rebecca Walker Reczek of The Ohio State University's Fisher College of Business. She showed that we judge a brand by the age, gender, and other characteristics of its fans.
Reczek’s team wanted to examine how passive exposure to a brand's social supporters affects attitudes toward brands. Her team showed test subjects a Facebook fan page for the Canadian clothing company Roots, but they manipulated the pictures that appeared on the page.
In the first study, participants saw pictures of six fans of their same gender. However, one group saw six people all similar in age, one group saw a mix of similar and dissimilar ages, and a third group saw six people who were all older in age. Based on the information presented on the Facebook page, subjects were asked to rate how much they liked Roots. People who saw the similar group and mixed group liked Roots equally well, but those who saw only older people than themselves liked the brand much less.
When Reczek’s team tested for gender rather than age, the result was the same—subjects who saw only the opposite gender liked the brand less. However, when the researchers tweaked the experiment to have subjects judge three restaurants side-by-side, people preferred the restaurant with a fan page that only had similar people—the mixed and dissimilar demographic groups were rated poorly.
Apparently on social media, the ultimate social community is occupied by people who look just like us.
As marketers, we know if people identify with our values, they then will spread our message by choice. Yet, the research suggests that people will judge our brand’s values by appearance first.
For years, we as marketers selected celebrities and celebrated followers who embody the brand’s image and ideals. Now, we’re under pressure to play casting director. Some social fans might not fit the ideal at all, so should we prevent such people from appearing social pages?
The results of Reczek’s study suggest that the most effective targeted marketing would segregate consumers by age, gender or socioeconomic status. Taken to its logical extreme, targeted marketing would eliminate the experience of seeing diversity.
In homogenizing brand pages, marketers would overlook evidence that all-group values can often trump in-group belonging. To elevate marketing to its highest level, we have to recognize that no matter what demographic occupies the brand page, our fans still share some universal values.
Look at the social reaction to the Boko Haram terrorist group, which kidnapped more than 200 schoolgirls in Nigeria. #BringBackOurGirls went viral beyond expectations. Over 200,000 people liked the cause’s Facebook page, and merely a few weeks ago, the most popular city supporting the cause was London, England. Currently, Lagos, Nigeria is the most popular place. Look at the posts by fans, and you’ll see people from every continent, country, and culture posting in solidarity. The hashtag has been used at least 3.3 million times on Twitter.
Where some marketing campaigns may enforce in-group biases, other campaigns could stretch the boundaries of our in-group, and form the largest communities in history. This insight is the key to shaping the communities that "occupy" your brand pages.
Our impressions of brands are influenced by the people we see on social pages, but that doesn’t mean marketers have to shield people from diversity. Indeed, by marketing values that supersede group identity, we can actually make our communities inclusive. To welcome groups that wouldn’t normally associate with our brand, we can use the levers of in-group, targeted marketing.
For example, men don’t look at women in Lululemon yoga pants, and think: I should really invest in some Lulu gear. Lululemon doesn’t pretend otherwise. They are actively trying to put their clothing on men who will inspire other men to buy.
At the same time, they are building social pages that celebrate athleticism, fitness, and health; educate people; inspire fans; and fit the company’s core proposition: "Elevating the world from mediocrity to greatness." They target people, but they also honor values that supersede gender.
To sustain a community and create advocates who share our brand, we have to champion higher values. We must stand for something greater than a sale and ask people to be thoughtful, compassionate, and empowered. "Buy my stuff" is not an inspirational statement. Promoting a healthy society, supporting environmental stewardship, or advocating peaceful international relations are all within the scope of courageous marketers.
Our work reflects how people see the world, and the world reflects the universe of messages and images to which we contribute. So let’s help people imagine bigger, more inclusive communities. Advocates have occupied our brand pages, but we have the power to shape the values of this community. Using targeted marketing, we also have the power to invite members who might otherwise not join in. Let’s create business value by upholding human values.
—Dave Hawley is vice president of marketing for SocialChorus.