Social Business 101: Brands

Social Business: It’s not a new way of doing business, it is doing business.

For the past six months, Bruce Elgort (OpenNTF) and I have embarked on a journey to talk about Social Business at a variety of conferences and meetings. From our two-hour presentation at IBM Lotusphere 2011, “How I Went Beyond the Hype, Narcissism and Trendiness to Become a Social Software Super Hero” to our 15-minute, stripped-down version at the 140 Character Conference, “Social Business Strategies,” we have enjoyed not only sharing about Social Business, but ultimately learning from the feedback of others to fine-tune and craft a stronger presentation about what Social Business is and how you can implement different techniques strategically, according to your company culture.

Before diving into what Social Business is, it is important to understand that being a Social Business is not about the tools that you use, but what you are doing and saying as a business, how you treat others (either businesses or consumers) and whether or not you are meeting goals and objectives. With that, let’s look at what Social Business is.

What is Social Business?

First, Social Business is about Brands. Specifically, the brand experience that a business provides consumers and other businesses. Second, Social Business is all about people. If you aren’t connecting with people, you won’t be selling your products or services. Connecting and sharing with people leads to the third area of Social Business, trusted relationships. Finally, if you aren’t getting stuff done (known affectionately as GSD), you probably won’t be in business very long. So with that, let’s dive in for a deeper look at brands.

Yesterday: Brand Identity

In the past, a brand was simply a mark of identification denoting property. The best example would be the use of a branding iron to mark and identify the owner of cattle (a painful, hot, and deliberately one-sided process). In marketing terms, brand identity is all about logos, symbols, Pantone Color Swatches, paper stocks, typography and anything else useful in identifying your product or service, thus marking a specific differentiation from the competition.

However, as social media began to give the consumer a larger and more pronounced voice, it became apparent that the foundation of branding was shifting from identification to experience.

Today: Brand Experience

Brands exist today in ways that would baffle advertisers of the past. There has been a democratization of brand value and worth, thanks to the voice of the consumer being elevated to the same level as the business that created a certain brand. No longer can a brand be a one-sided process of applying pressure in order to mark territory.

A brand, and the business that owns the brand, must be willing to share brand value with the consumer. This sharing of brand value is important because more and more people build their life around specific brands. From designers, artists and filmmakers that build an elite identity around Apple products to hard-core programmers and developers that identify with Linux or Microsoft, any changes to a brand, no matter the size and scale, can have devastating effects upon the psyche and identity of individual people. Therefore, decisions that affect the overall look and functionality of a brand need to be tested and approved not only internally, but externally as well.

A powerful example of a business attempting to re-brand without consulting an external group of consumers was Gap. On October 4, 2010, Gap changed their logo from the classic blue square containing an all-white serif type treatment of “GAP,” to a blue-square with a common all-black sans serif type treatment of “Gap,” outside the boundaries of the blue-square. This change created such a backlash and controversy that Gap returned to their old logo in just one week. A Vanity Fair article describes in detail the fiasco, the response from Gap themselves, as well as the number of spoof websites that were created in response to the failed re-branding attempt, such as “Crap Logo Yourself.”

What is Your Brand Worth?

Whether you are focused on brand identity or engaged in a two-way conversation of brand experience, Social Business is about knowing your brand value and worth. What is your brand worth? In the eyes of your consumers that are potentially basing lifestyle decisions around your brand, your brand has tremendous value. That is why you should protect it. By engaging with your consumers and understanding what your brand means to them, you have an opportunity of learning not only ways to improve the strength of your brand, but in time, can make changes to your brand in response to your company culture and the interaction of your customers.

It is important that you realize that the strength of your brand is also not something to take for granted. If you make a mistake, like Gap, own up to it, don’t blame others. By blaming others, the value and worth of your brand is diminished based on the number of people that experience and interact with your brand. It’s scary to a certain degree the amount of power that the consumer now holds. But perhaps this is the outcome of a business world that has shunned accountability?

Get Social. Do Business.

Hopefully you have a better understanding of the value that brands bring to the table for Social Businesses. Knowing what your brand is worth and the experience it provides others paves the way for deeper and more fulfilling dialogue between consumers and businesses.

Realize the power of your consumer’s voice and be willing to talk with them in order to make decisions that are not only great for your bottom line as a business, but in the best interest of the people that identify with your products and services.