Brands are stories, and like all other stories, they have to be communicated. A story unheard is not a story.  A story not understood is not a story.  And clearly, a story not believed turns into something altogether different.  The brand as a story has to be effectively communicated, understood in a positive way and believed.   It has to be a story one wants to come back to, delight in and make part of one’s own story. Why else would you wear someone else’s name on your person?

Back in the pre-digital days, brand communication was pretty straightforward: one-way, non-interactive print, television and radio advertising along with event, television and radio sponsorship. The brand told us what its story was and we, as receivers of those communications, either bought into it, or not. There really was no direct way of communicating back to the brand,  other than as measured by changes in sales and revenue of the branded product or service and the occasional (and rarely listened to — yes, I know there were exceptions) letters to the brand or to an editor.  There was some media coverage of brands, but usually when a brand got into trouble or when a particular brand campaign broke new ground (like “Where’s the Beef?” for Wendy’s).

With the introduction of the Internet, a number of brands tried to make their websites cozy and welcoming places for their consumers to come and share recipes, indulge in product images, engage in various contests and the like, but the communication then was still pretty much one way — from the brand to the audience.  Yes, there was some interactivity, but it was mostly negative and in the nature of brand critical websites with obscene domain names (f** or deceptive domain names (the old bait and switch, like the “pro-life” group that used the URL  to criticize that organization), and critical and often nasty, but sometimes very nice postings on blogs, but the total audience for these were usually few.

Enter Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Pinterest, Amazon, Yelp, and the extraordinary growing number of other platforms that allow for real interactivity with large audience reach.  Consumers are posting images that reflect their feelings toward a brand, are “liking” or otherwise commenting on brands, rating brands, sharing their experiences with brands, and, in essence, telling their stories about the story of the brand. The story is no longer from the brand to the consumer; it is now a mixture, except that the massively concentrated and distributed word of mouth that social media permits no longer gives the brand the final word on its story.

For many brands, this was and remains both exciting and terrifying.  Loss of control is never pleasant. Change is always risky.  Rethinking and readjusting the brand message constantly, and always being on the alert for what the consumer is saying powerfully somewhere, is challenging.  And the consumer is so complex with so many different voices, from aging baby boomers who need to express themselves and their importance in waning time to Millennials, born with electronic digits, who view the online and offline worlds as one and don’t trust easily (but also can be fairly easily manipulated).

And then there are the strategy issues: so many places to target, so many media, so many channels, so much to do.  And what’s the ROI? With studies showing that most videos embedded in social media aren’t being seen, and data proving that visits, clicks and “likes” don’t necessarily turn into sales (Facebook and others are re-thinking how they measure their effectiveness), many marketers feel challenged to support putting a lot of money into social media, but at the same time know that somehow they have to make it succeed and be an integral part of their brand story.  And of course the lawyers and compliance professionals are constantly talking about the risks, real and imagined, of dealing in social media (which I’ll cover in another post).

So what to make of this?  We need to always start and end with the basics — brand stories need to be communicated effectively, understood, believed and loved.  Which means taking an integrated approach that results in these goals. Use of the media that consumers use to get information is a right place to be, as long as everything that’s offered up is consistent with and supports the overall brand story and the brand goals.  In other words, like every relationship that works, there has to be mutual respect, effective communication and trust.  Social media used effectively can create and sustain great relationships; used ineffectively, it can break them.