Brands Are Not People
The recent case of Burwell v. Hobby Lobby is just one amongst a string of Supreme Court decisions that have legally classified corporations as people. Even if corporations are considered people from a legal standpoint, the notion of corporations as people is, intuitively speaking, pretty absurd.
Yet, if you’re online, you will likely encounter corporations pretending to be people every day as branded profiles and pages on nearly every social media channel.
While brands have long adopted a voice to use for corporate communications and advertisements, the social, back-and-forth nature of online communications have forced that branded voice to become increasingly personal to fit in. In order for brands to participate in social media, they have to (in some sense or another) pretend to be people.
However, this is a huge challenge for brands because at the end of the day they are not people. How can brands effectively create personas out of thin air, that are not just convincing, but that win a customer’s trust and affection? Is there really a way for a brand to translate believably on social media?
“Authenticity” is Not Always Genuine
The prevailing wisdom on the issue is that in order to establish a brand as credible on social media, all branded communications should strive for “authenticity.” I use quotes, because authenticity seems like a contradictory idea in regards to the game of pretend that corporations play online. A fictional brand personality meant to personalize a corporation consisting of dozens, hundreds or even thousands of people can never really be authentic in a meaningful sense.
In fact, if you think about it, the only really genuine thing a brand can do is acknowledge the absurdity of trying to pass itself off as a person. Any attempt for a brand to take itself too seriously on social media is inherently disingenuous and will likely be ignored at best or scorned at worst.
For the “digital natives” whose social norms have been shaped and learned online (and to whom many brands aim to appeal), seeing through these corporate accounts is second nature. Even if they see these phony brand profiles, their eyes will roll right past them. Irony, self-reference and hyperbole are the language of the social web, and any brand not fluent will inevitably be ignored. Brands can’t hope to join the conversation when they don’t speak the language.
The Key Mistake Brands Make (and How to Fix It)
Most brand missteps don’t come down to poor taste or ill-will. They’re almost always due to a lack of self awareness.
As John Oliver points out in this hilarious clip, oftentimes brands put out seemingly sincere messages that simply don’t make sense in the context of their brand. Tweeting to commemorate Pearl Harbor is fine. Spaghetti-O’s tweeting about Pearl Harbor (even if they really mean it) comes off as awkward and offensive.
Oliver compares the way most brands act online to Tony the Tiger busting through the wall at a cocktail party and proceeding to barge in on everyone’s conversation to tell them how “Greattt!” Frosted Flakes are. Not only does their marketing message fall on deaf ears, it often does more harm than good.
So how can brands avoid this mistake? What lessons can brand managers learn to avoid being ‘that’ guest at the cocktail party that is social media?
All the best social brands seem to have one thing in common — they don’t pretend to be anything they’re not. The best community managers don’t try to make the brand into a faceless corporate persona. Instead, the best brands online make it seem more like their social media accounts were hacked by their #1 fan.
They enthusiastically respond to any message that comes their way, no matter how small. Each opportunity to tweet is a chance to represent the brand they love so much and to share that enthusiasm with others.
In other words, great social media accounts are not brands pretending to be people. Rather, they are people pretending to be brands.
How Brands Can Become Self-Aware
This is a subtle yet powerful distinction. First of all, this approach helps remedy the problem of brands appearing disingenuous. A brand can never authentically be a person, but a person on behalf of a brand can certainly be authentic.
Another benefit of approaching social media this way is that having an individual “break the fourth wall” (when actors break character and acknowledge the audience) of a typical branded account opens up the potential for all kinds of self-referential and ironic humor that resonates strongly with online audiences.
This example from UK Mobile Phone provider Tesco, shows the kind of ironic humor that this approach makes possible. By ironically misusing the pronouns, Tesco balances its dual identity as a brand and as a person in a self-aware and playful way. Who ever thought grammar could be funny?
Part of the reason this strategy is so effective is that the pervading culture of the online world is dripping with irony. Hashtags are literally self-referencing, memes are nothing more than constantly evolving inside jokes. Hyperbole is employed so often that saying you “laughed out loud” at something really means you found it slightly amusing. Tapping into this ironic culture can be a powerful tool for brands.
In the above example, a Taco Bell fan goes out of her way to mention that Taco Bell is great because it encapsulates this ironic attitude. While I’m certain the social media team were all high-fiving each other and jumping for joy when they saw this tweet, Taco Bell sticks to its character and responds with an ironically apathetic “Sorry not sorry.” (itself a reference to an online meme).
There are plenty more examples of this basic strategy being used for a variety of different brands. The nice thing is that this strategy is very flexible and can work for all kinds of organizations. From brands as serious as NASA to brands as silly as Skittles the key to their social media success is that they don’t pretend to be anything they are not.
Ironically, the reason the best brands are taken seriously by their fans is that they stopped taking themselves seriously a long time ago.
What do you think about the concept of brands being self-aware? How does your business approach social media to avoid coming off too serious? Share your thoughts below.