The New Criteria For Brand Conversations

Mark Di SommaMay 4, 20154 min

This nice piece on the Adidas campaign (thanks for sharing, Dan Ball) draws attention to the need for brands to shift from talking up their products to talking with their customers about the things that matter to them.

In this case Adidas puts Luis Suarez out-front and uses the occasion to start a discussion on people’s reactions to those who are successful with the hashtag #therewillbehaters. As Adidas’ director of global brand strategy, Stefanie Knoren points out, “If you put up [this] hashtag…it is not just enough to talk about new boots. People are expecting a conversation around that with you.”

Increasingly, brands are placing their products and its values and beliefs in the context of a wider discussion. The danger? That the issue overwhelms the product and consumers are more interested in that than what you are trying to ship. Or they’re not interested and give the messages and the product the cold shoulder. The opportunity? To reflect an ethos that people are drawn to, that lifts their esteem of your brand and shifts their inclination in your favor.

It doesn’t always work of course. Ask Starbucks. And at times, it can feel like sensationalism almost for the sake of it. But where the discussion links with, and elaborates on, an aspect of the brand story and/or the brand’s long held stance on a particular matter, this ‘wider conversation’ approach presents an opportunity to extend the platform on which you sell.

So if you do want to engage this way, how do you make sure that the conversation has enough steer to stay on-course without feeling heavy-handed?

1. Understand what they really want to talk about. Know your audience well enough to know the things that interest them. Be very clear why you’re engaging with them, and why they will care.

2. Choose how you want to interact. Chris Wren and I have been talking about the difference between conversations that encourage quick exchange (chat) and those that seek to elicit opinion (comment). Chats are more informal and relaxed, fast-moving and of-the-moment. Comments are more serious, considered, personal and often reflect deep-held beliefs. Don’t invite a chat-like discussion on matters that people are committed to and have strong views on – because the discussion itself can then feel flippant, almost dismissive. Equally, looking for commentary on matters that people have not got much time for can feel like you are exaggerating a situation (for your own gain) or that you are obsessing on something trivial or that you have nothing better to do with your time – or anyone else’s for that matter.

3. Own a point of view. Have an opinion, be clear in your own minds why you believe what you believe and be prepared to share it if you are asked. There’s no point in tying your brand to a subject that you have no connection with because people will quickly see through that. Equally, don’t be aggressive about advocacy of your position. It will just look like you’re lecturing. The most powerful brand conversations spring from a belief/position but are open-minded enough to encourage exchanges that everyone gets something from.

4. Know the destination. Where’s this going? What do you want to see happen as a result of this conversation-starter? And how will you judge success? Clearly Adidas saw an opportunity to tie its brand to discussions around success and envy.

It must be said that not everyone is convinced this is the answer. A number of critics have pointed out that social conversations are nowhere near as effective or as engaging as marketers would like to think they are. Judging success by the numbers, Nate Elliot from Forrester Research went so far as to describe the concept as “delusional” in this article.

I’m a little more forgiving – in the meantime at least – only because I think effective digital exchange between brands and customers is still very much a work in progress. I prefer to see the efforts of Adidas as a symptom rather than a tactic: a welcome sign that more and more marketers are understanding that what they do must take place against a broader backdrop than the paid media systems that have been the norm for so long. These are steps in that direction. And I believe they are good steps.

But is this a tipping point in marketing? Almost certainly not.

Why? because I don’t think it’s radical enough yet. I think the disruptive potential of digital remains untapped. This still feels like an extension of what has been in some ways. And it still feels like we are judging success by old rules.

So, let me posit another possibility for where engagement might go over the longer term. In a world where everything is big, coverage is ubiquitous and noise incessant, perhaps the next thing for brands doesn’t lie in trying to own a big conversation at all. Perhaps it lies in owning a small one, or a discreet one, or a secret one, or a private one. And perhaps success doesn’t lie (or at least shouldn’t be measured) in what gets said or shown or hash-tagged or shouted about from the rooftops, but rather what remains unsaid because the idea has been absorbed and the association quietly made.

As marketers, are we still desperately looking for the wrong thing? Have we assumed that engagement must be as raucous as we are – and that digital must be a continuation of full volume? Perhaps the time is coming when we will need to be more subtle…more personal, rather than just personalized…in what we talk with people about, and what we expect them to show us back.

That would certainly change brand conversations. Dramatically.

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Mark Di Somma

One comment

  • Chris Wren

    May 4, 2015 at 7:04 pm

    Great insight Mark on “the small conversation”. When we think of digital engagement happening in “social media” we often try to engage as we do on other media. Media is a misleading term. This is why I prefer to say a “social web” is powered by human media. When we consider a social web and human media, the brand voice has to become personal to find any receptivity. I don’t think there are big conversations or small ones. Maybe “small is the new big” but that seems trite too. There are popular conversations, forgotten conversations, but to the individual in the conversation, there is always opportunity to create meaning. And meaningful interactions are the ones best remembered.

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