Brand Building in the Digital Age: It’s not you, it’s them

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Marketing is undergoing tectonic shifts. To navigate and accelerate the new era of social media, you should no longer ask what your followers can do for you, but ask what you can do for your followers. Following a seminar by Shama Hyder, social media guru and branding expert, at SXSW, we explore how rethinking your role as a brand in the age of social media can help you build brand loyalty.

The proliferation of smartphones and social media has left consumers over-flooded by choice. Impressions are coming in from left and right in every conceivable format on a multitude of mediums. Moreover, with the attention span of the average consumer being significantly diminished, it can be tricky to make your brand stick.

This creates a hyper-competitive market for any company trying to push their brand. As a marketer or a business owner, you may feel tempted to think of the good ol’ days of advertising with a slight sense of nostalgia and wish that things could go back to being ever so simple. As we dream of print ads and TV commercials, while posting in vain to gain traction on our platform, it is easy to forget that social media can actually be a very powerful tool.

The two images below are shot in 2005 and 2013 taken at St. Peter's Square during the announcement of Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis, respectively. This juxtaposition perfectly summarizes the paradox of smartphones and social media—the travesty and the opportunity. On one hand it shows how the disconnect of humans from reality has in some sense become the new reality. On the other, it shows how anyone and anything can obtain far greater reach than ever before.

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That being said, 99.9% of all content posted goes nowhere and only 0.1% gets more than 1,000 shares. So how do you make sure that the voice of your brand is actually heard amidst all the noise? Building a strong brand identity is key, but that is only part of the equation. The other part is not about you, your brand or your business—it’s about them. The consumers.

There was a time when branding was about imposing narratives on people—for better and for worse. Or, to put it more diplomatically, branding was about allowing people to create narratives around themselves. That was then. Now, social media has allowed all of us to create our own, personal mini-narratives; we use social media to convey who we are, what we believe in and what our values are. Needless to say, it’s a well-curated, carefully filtered version of the aforementioned, but nonetheless.

This has changed marketing fundamentally and traditional advertising is slowly losing its agency to dictate the aspirations of consumers. As a marketer of a professional or personal brand, this means that your key focus should no longer be how your brand is perceived. Rather, you should think about what associating with your brand allows your target audience to convey about their personal brand.

Take Moleskine, the Italian manufacturer, papermaker and product designer best known for their black leather-bound notebooks. Their notebooks are gorgeous, but arguably overpriced. So why do people adhere to buying their notebooks almost religiously? Because it’s not about notebooks, it’s about the consumer.

People who buy Moleskine notebooks like to perceive themselves as ‘creatives’, who appreciate the authenticity and analog feel of pen and paper. Thus, their store in Milan is decorated like a hip café, where they serve coffee to both buyers and browsers. Not because Moleskine is venturing into the coffee business (for what we know), but because this is an extension of how their customers like to see themselves; as progressive, urban people, who drink hipster coffee in a quaint café, while jotting down little strokes of genius and organizing their life in bullet journal format. 

Moleskine understands that the new marketing game is not about allowing narratives, but about enabling narratives. The key to gaining momentum in this new world of marketing is understanding this slight difference in nuance. It’s about putting not only your customers’ needs first, but also their narratives first.

Consumers have so many means and mediums for expressing themselves nowadays. They already know who they are. Or at least, who they aspire to be. Your role as a marketer is no longer about creating these illusions; but rather catering to them.