In the age of social media I think there is a lot of confusion and fear around the issue of having a message vs. controlling the message. The fact of the matter is, a mature brand engages in all of the following three phases:
1. Phase 1: Has a message
2. Phase 2: Listens to feedback
3. Phase 3: Facilitates a conversation around the feedback
The first phase is the most important. To develop an effective brand (remember that you always have a "default," which is the brand you have if you're not trying to present yourself in any particular way), you have to have a key message. Forget the logo for now, just think about the idea, the concept, the words. Without that you are absolutely nowhere.
But having a message is not the end of the game. And that is where many organizations still don't seem to get it.
The reality is, if you communicate a vision, mission, philosophy, and values, you are in fact making a PROMISE. And people are going to hear your promise and hold you accountable. You wanted them to listen? Well they are, and you can bet that they're not just sitting there with their hands folded quietly in their laps. They are waiting to talk back. And with the social media tools now available, it is easier and easier to do so and click "send," for all the world to see.
Realize that by reacting to you, they are branding you too. And that is something you really can't control. It is the dynamic between the message going out, and the messages coming in, that creates the real brand. So Phase 2 is to listen to that feedback, and Phase 3 is to actively encourage and facilitate the conversation. If your brand is solid, you can make modifications based on the dialogue without cutting away at the core of the brand.
Sounds good, in theory. But what can you counsel an organization that accepts this reality but still shuts down? (Remember this is an emotional reaction not a logical one.) Imagine comments like--
1. "Well then forget branding, it's not worth investing in."
2. "Nobody's on social media anyway."
The first thing to do is gather objective arguments and facts if possible. It is not about opinions here. Branding exists by default and so does feedback, and people are online by the gazillions, so the best thing to do is face it and handle it the best way possible.
Some things I think are good to say:
1. "Either we control the brand or the brand controls us" - meaning, "If we don't do anything to send out a message, then we are really at the mercy of feedback. So we may as well have a voice in our own identity."
2. "Social media is here and it's not going away" - meaning, social media is literally exploding in importance, and the organization is nowhere near powerful enough to stop people from going online and saying what they have to say, whether it's true or not. The feedback will get out somehow. (Of course we always had social media, it just wasn't always online.) At a minimum the organization needs to acknowledge what is being said about it in social networks; better would be to respond; even better than that would be to put up its own brand-sponsored forum for feedback (positive or negative) about the brand and invite people to have the conversation there. But certainly not to view dissenters as enemies or treat them as such.
Let me be clear here that I am NOT counseling any organization to destroy its own reputation or hurt someone else's by providing a platform for or engaging in inappropriate discussions of any kind (e.g. publishing unsubstantiated allegations). I am only saying that a brand's health depends on the interaction between message and feedback, and a reasoned discussion is vital.
Also let me say that actually reaching stage 3 is very, very difficult to do, for a lot of reasons--including financial, psychological, cultural, political, and even legal--even though they may sound logical and intuitive. That is why, as time goes on, I find myself re-learning and re-repeating the same basic brand lessons over and over again. In branding it's not about being fancy. It's really about doing the basic things well - getting the organization together to tell a particular story, reaching out to tell that story to employees and the public, engaging their interest and attention, and sustaining the story's credibility in the face of mistakes, dissension, and even disaster.
One more thought:
We can compare this with parenting.
Some parents don't know what to say to their kids about anything in life. But just because they don't have a clear message, doesn't mean the kids aren't receiving one. That's like the default mode of branding.
Some parents tell their kids exactly what to do in life - they have a message. That's like branding - phase 1. But they don't want to hear their kids react - they don't listen.
The smartest parents, the ones whose kids actually absorb their key values, determine who they are and what they want their kids to remember (stage 1), listen to their kids' response (stage 2) and engage in a conversation around the issues (stage 3).