Gawker: Brands Are Not Your Friends

Gawker got its feelings hurt that it hurt Coke’s feelings and that, in turn, hurt consumers’ feelings.

I don’t entirely agree with the premise of the outrage, but it’s a passionate argument held by many that is worth paying attention to.

In the era where IRM (“influencer relationship management”) is a thing, and social advertising, blogger networks, sponsorships and native advertising have finally been quantified as business drivers, we marketers have a responsibility to never forget the human side of our business…

What’s been lost in the friendification of corporate brands is that by their very nature of brand-ness, brands are diametrically opposed to our interests as humans. They exist solely to distract, deceive, and manipulate us out of our money—and in the case of Coca Cola, freely dispense diabetes and obesity. There is nothing relatable in a brand. It’s an entity designed for the single purpose of extracting money from you by any legal means, no matter if you don’t need or even want what’s being sold. Even if the thing being sold is very, very bad for you—the brand will persuade you it’s silken and lovely. A brand will systematically and perpetually convince you that your best interests are incorrect—this is the behavior of an abusive partner, not a friend. Not even a stranger! Brands hate you.

And still, people love slobbering all over branded membranes.

My counter-point: Brands don’t have to be your friends, but they can be friendly.

Passion for brands is a real thing, and it’s not always about sales.

But often good social marketing really is about sharing your brand advocate stories with others in order to drive sales. Or empowering your brand advocates to share that advocacy – often through their own channels. And yes, things like access, money and incentives exchange hands. Much like has always existed in the traditional media and traditional advertising worlds.

Not all consumer engagement programs need to earned and grown from an organic base of advocates, but I believe the best ones are. Not all products are amazing and solve a problem, but I believe the best ones are.

The beauty of the social media era is the new-found accessibility between individuals and the companies, organizations, politicians, celebrities, musicians and countless others. The walls are down.

Now we have to be careful what kind of bridges we’re building.

The monetization of emerging communication channels isn’t new, and neither is branded content on those channels. However, the social era was built on the promise of transparency and authenticity, which I agree many brand managers are still struggling to embrace ([rant]even as Facebook nears its 11th birthday[/rant]).

It’s hard to give up control, even if it’s the right thing to do. Even if someone uses that control to be a cynic or destroy your idea.

Okay, so is the brand/human/friend conundrum a necessary evil or an emerging opportunity? I would say it’s less a slippery slope downward and more a fine horizontal line we need to walk forward. There will be slips, wins and major catastrophes, but that isn’t going to stop brands from trying to humanize themselves and find touchpoints for engagement. It’s up to us to build programs that are laser targeted on a brand promise, engage advocates in a way that adds value, AND tie to measurable business objectives.

It ain’t easy. That’s obvious, right?

I think outgoing General Mills CMO Mark Addicks would have some strong counter arguments

Products come and go. Brands endure.

They are a challenge to build, a challenge to steward as consumers and markets change, a challenge to evolve strategically.

Brands force us to make choices, such as who to be for, where to play, when to urgently accelerate–and when to stop and have the courage to say ‘no’.

And it is far easier to destroy a brand than to build one. Actually, frighteningly easy.

Building and growing a brand requires that we, too, continue to grow and evolve at the pace of the consumer and marketplace. And that we are accountable for stewarding each brand to a better place.