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In this era of economic uncertainty, buyer apathy and product obsolescence, businesses need to take a fresh look at how consumers view the company’s brands and what makes a brand compete better in the marketplace. For the average company, it is quite hard to achieve the level of brand differentiation that the recognizable business icons like Apple and Nike enjoy.
The key problem, according to academic researchers and industry practitioners, is that many companies have become too disengaged from their customers by relying on cost-saving, self-service technology solutions. These tend to dehumanize the customer experience and distance the firm from its buyers, causing them confusion and frustration, as happens when a call placed to a company’s toll-free line is answered by an automated voice offering a relentless sequence of vague or impersonal options.
Fortunately, technology, often seen as the bane of customer relationship marketing, may also be its savior. The rapid advent of social media tools provides a ready mechanism to engage customers, talk to them, soften a brand’s image, and present a friendly and accessible “face” to the public.
Research shows that when brands are given an emotional identity through advertising and social media tactics, consumers tend to attribute human traits to them in a phenomenon known as anthropomorphism. They may view a given brand rather like a person and describe one as “cool” and “fun,” another as “kind” and “sensitive,” and yet another as “snobbish” and “aloof.” Brands that have been anthropomorphized in a positive way have been empirically found to enjoy more favorable consumer attitudes and command higher loyalty than those that do not.
Consider the upmarket hospitality chain Kimpton Hotels. To portray a warm, friendly and empathetic brand image, Kimpton created a social listening desk, which is a panel of employees whose principal job is to listen to what customers are saying on social media and find novel ways of attending to their needs. When customers post queries or comments on these platforms, the desk promptly responds to them with careful, considerate actions. Recently, when one guest tweeted that she was enjoying the Kimpton experience but was feeling under the weather, the desk routed the tweet immediately to the hotel’s local team. They in turn delivered a bowl of soup, warm tea and a get-well card to her room.
Yet when it comes to brand anthropomorphism, some inadvertent and negative consequences are possible. An organization that conducts its business in a highly methodical and clinical manner can develop a brand image of being cold, impersonal or even ruthless. Another brand’s personality may be stodgy, boring and colorless, as the company may not have made the necessary investment in its marketing communications and customer engagement practices. The negative brand connotations may persist and actually accumulate over time, which then creates a tactical opportunity for competitors. The company’s management may be oblivious to these problems until it’s too late.
Firms can improve their brand perceptions and engage customers on social media by making a personal connection with them through upbeat, light-hearted posts, direct replies and witty remarks. Taco Bell once seemed a faceless, even dour brand, but now it is perceived as positively cool on social media and has garnered a large, youthful following. It projects a carefree, fun personality by using short, funny tweets and doesn’t shy away from engaging in friendly banter with followers. Similarly, Lush, the U.K.-based cosmetics company, uses an informal tone on all its social media pages, where it’s made clear that each customer’s feedback is valued and appreciated. That helps foster the “neighborhood feel” that Lush is known for and creates a strong sense of community.
The tactic of culture-jacking (also, newsjacking) can be employed to personify a brand as current, topical and in tune with the times. If executed seamlessly, as Oreo did during the power outage on the 2013 Super Bowl, a company may connect its brand with the trending topic of the day, appear clever and witty, and have the message become viral. But it can also backfire quite easily and bring unwanted negative attention toward the brand. This is what happened when Gap sought to drive traffic to its website through an indiscreet tweet during Hurricane Sandy. Clearly, tactics such as these are potentially risky and need to be conducted with extreme caution and sensitivity.
How do you avoid the risks and capture the opportunities from brand personification? Here are three key considerations:
- Use social media to articulate your brand’s personality and core values (its DNA), which are often most effective in influencing prospective customers and converting them from casual to loyal buyers.
- Create attention-grabbing content using visuals, wit and humor to engage brand followers, but be careful about treading the boundary between what seems clever and funny and what can be deemed as controversial and insensitive.
- Understand that even on social media, less is more. Too much content and too-frequent updating can be off-putting and devolve into noise, so it is best to strike a balance and develop a positive and engaging image for the brand.