Brand marketers spend a lot of time crafting stories and monitoring customer interaction for consistency and positive engagement. But in today’s digital world, a message sent into the social sphere is no longer under the brand’s control: it belongs to the brand’s audience. And that can be terrifying. One misstep, one misunderstood message is all it takes for a brand’s reputation to be maligned.
Take, for example, Dove’s “Real Beauty” campaign, which was launched 14 years ago to “make women feel comfortable in the skin they are in.” But in 2017, a Dove Facebook ad showing a black women removing her T-shirt to reveal a white woman underneath set off a tweetstorm accusing the brand of racism. The community interpreted the message as “black woman turns white after using Dove body wash.” Dove apologized, admitting that they “missed the mark,” and took the ad down. But the damage was done.
Brand reputation can be fragile and fleeting. Companies start believing their own PR and forget that their communities are filled with living, breathing people who want their loyalty earned every day.
Here are a few strategies for brand marketers who want to keep their messages relevant and responsive to their communities.
Forget traditional metrics
There are actual people behind those likes, shares and conversation threads, but brands sometimes forget that and mainly focus on vanity metrics, such as their number of followers. The emphasis should be on human engagement. Brands must listen and respond to customers as the environment changes. Brands with cult-like communities—Lego, Starbucks, Apple, Sephora—know that it’s not just their product, customer service or sense of mission that matters. It’s all of it. A community should feel invested on many levels and above all should perceive that they’ve been involved in brand decisions.
The current social media obsession with influencers is a bastardization of something sacred: an individual’s authentic connection to your brand and his or her heartfelt desire to spread the word. Instead of targeting a handful of high-profile influencers, a brand manager should ensure that everyone aspires to be an influencer by making brand engagement so valuable that it generates word-of-mouth buzz. Brands that habitually double down on advertising and publicity stunts may want to allocate more resources toward creating people-to-people touchpoints.
For instance, Talenti Gelato engages its fans on social media by asking them to snap and post pictures of the favorite flavors on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook so Talenti knows what flavors to keep when making room for new offerings. The brand gets great market research, and its community members engage with one another and with the company in a way that makes everyone feel invested. But that kind of community can never be taken for granted. It has to be cultivated and nourished. It’s not as easy as it sounds.
Address your community with a singular, consistent voice
Marketing, customer service, public relations: They’re all separate departments with different goals, right? But your community wants a unified brand voice regardless of where they engage, so you need to hire someone whose priority is to think about the community and how to keep it happy and not worry about sales or media spin.
Case in point: Several months ago, Talenti got some serious Twitter hate when its gelato lids were so hard to open that customers started using hammers and screwdrivers and (of course!) posting photos of mangled containers. The brand addressed the problem (an “overzealous lid-tightening machine” was to blame), but did little to meaningfully engage with angry community members directly. One private message by Talenti to an angry consumer suggested contacting the company’s customer service team “during regular business hours.” For a brand with such an enthusiastic community of followers, it was clearly a failure to understand that community is the next iteration of customer success.
Uprisings demand transparency
When things take a turn for the worse in your community, you need to own it. First, you’ll want to contact some key stakeholders—for instance, a manufacturing partner, a project manager or anyone else who is trying to fix the problem—to better understand what’s happening. You should also talk to loyal customers who are experiencing the problem and who will help you keep an eye on the community narrative. Lastly, you need to be fully transparent because keeping the public in the dark can fuel a loud and nasty viral reaction. Explain to your community how you’ll correct the problem and how you plan to follow through. Do it right, and your best customers will help amplify your message.
Remember, you can’t control how your community interacts with your brand, but that doesn’t mean you have to lose control entirely either. Listen closely, be aware of micro-trends and respond with honesty and transparency. That’s the key to a vibrant, engaged community that loves its brand, warts and all.