Monday, March 15, 2010

Go With The Flow - Of The Social Media River

"People are messy, brands are clean.” Somewhere in the back of the traditional brand managers’ mind this phrase always lurks. They see their job as one of control, policing, enforcement: The brand should always appear the same, nobody should co-opt it, and “infringement” on the brand has to be “punished” in some way.

Traditional brand managers have a suspicious attitude toward people, and the damage they can do to the brand. Aside from the obvious problem of counterfeiters, insiders, associates, or interested outsiders can do all sorts of “damage” with their right to free speech. After all, look at the laundry list of “problems” they have to contend with:

  • Trusted employees who write tell-all books (so frequent one need not provide an example)
  • Employees who prefer the competitors’ product (e.g., Microsofties using the Apple iPhone
  • Interested parties who launch popular unofficial websites with the brand name in them, create videos about the brand, etc. (,

  • Reporters who investigate and report unflattering things (the CNBC biography of Wendy’s founder Dave Thomas, whose TV commercials portrayed him as amiable, revealed a father usually not there at family events, who presented a stern, don’t-mess-with-me demeanor.

From the perspective of a traditional manager, the things above are horrible. After all – a manager is the steward of the status quo. When people mess with the brand they are disturbing the status quo. It is the job of a manager to stop them. Simple.

But maybe we shouldn’t leave the job of brand stewardship to managers. Maybe what we should do is put brand leaders mostly in charge, and have brand managers enforce what they say. Because a leader understands that the brand has to evolve according to the energy and the strategic environment of the times. And sometimes you can actually do great things with the brand when people do things that seem to undermine it.

Take the brand Walmart.
Now look at this screenshot from the website

I heard about it from a friend, and everybody I talk to about it seems to have heard of it already. When I saw the photos and videos on this site, I thought they were hilarious…and everyone I speak to seems to think the same thing.

If you are Walmart leadership your first reaction might be to think that this site is a bad thing. That it hurts Walmart’s reputation. But I’ll tell you something – all the advertising in the world can’t get you this kind of publicity. It may actually be good for the brand. For in this case, it is social media that is defining the brand, and defining it in a way that is unique, compelling, and engaging for a mass audience: exactly who Walmart wants to attract.

We can apply what spiritual thinker and wellness educator Elizabeth Lesser once said to Oprah about finding personal peace - to the achievement of brand success:

"The soul is the river of energy which animates who we are. When you follow this river of energy, it's almost impossible to go wrong. This flow can lead you to your own greatness if you follow it with an open mind."

If I were Walmart I would absolutely go with the type of branding suggested by this site. I would embrace the weird, the wacky, and the wonderful. Because that is what the very essence of America is – we welcome all kinds of diversity, we don’t judge (although we like to laugh), and we like the spirit of independence. Who knows, maybe there is a partnership opportunity with American Idol and Coca-Cola here? (Ever seen an American Idol audition - like “Pants on the Ground?”

I’m not saying that brands should always allow themselves to be “hijacked.” But I do think they should be run by leaders, not managers, with an open mind. Brand leaders go with the energy of their target consumers. In Walmart’s case, that is the mass market. And it wouldn’t be the worst thing for them to be a bit more quirky, rather than fighting for an image of middle-American respectability that isn’t really them, that isn’t really unique, and that doesn’t capture anyone’s attention.