Social branding: A new paradigm for brands in society

December 05, 2013

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Dominic Walsh
Managing Director,
based in Landor Sydney

One would expect that a brand would be social by nature. If a brand exists in the mind of the consumer, then surely its modus operandi should be to develop an empathetic relationship with the people who buy it. This, however, has not always been the case. Brands used to push out their messages and consumers either accepted or rejected them; there was no back and forth, no listening, no dialogue. 

Yet in recent years the way people engage with technology, society, the environment, and manufacturing has changed. Technology provides an unprecedented level of transparency that is placing power back in the hands of consumers. Companies are required to act ethically and in an environmentally responsible manner. They are also finding that to be successful they need to offer more customizable products and experiences. All of this has resulted in a shifting paradigm for brands and branding, which in turn has changed the branding industry in a number of ways. 

To help explain the changes that have taken place over the years, I typically refer to three waves in history that have affected the way people relate to brands.

Evolution of branding

The first wave: Subsistence branding


The first evidence of branding dates back to the ancient Egyptians in 3000 BC. People who grew crops and raised cattle used branding as a way to identify ownership and assist with bartering. Not until the eighth century did the term brand come about—originating from the Old Norse word brandr, meaning to burn. Farmers branded cattle to show ownership of their property, and the act of branding cattle with a hot iron was an early form of branding—an early logo, so to speak. 

The second wave: Industrial branding


The Industrial Revolution brought about the next significant change in 1760 AD. Manufacturers used environmental resources to mass-produce products for consumers. Brands were distributed in one direction: from manufacturer to consumer. One-way communication was also the norm: a message was developed and pushed out to a customer, creating a monologue (rather than a dialogue) with the consumer. 

The third wave: Social branding 


In the last few decades, technology, the Internet, and social media have radically changed the way brands communicate with consumers and—more importantly—the way that consumers interact with brands. A new transparency has shifted the balance of power between brands. Brands are finding themselves forced to listen to their customers, and public opinion has more sway than ever before over company actions. For example, a British Airways customer was dissatisfied with the way the airline was handling his father’s lost baggage. He paid to promote a tweet and within six hours had generated 25,000 impressions. The next day, British Airways was compelled to publicly apologize and locate the lost luggage. The third wave of branding is being shaped by changes in technology, manufacturing, and ethics. 

A new paradigm: Social branding

The role of technology

Technology is driving more direct dialogue with consumers. 

When Felix Baumgartner successfully completed the first supersonic free fall from space to earth, his Red Bull sponsor benefited tenfold. With no paid media coverage on the event, its YouTube video still reached over 34 million views in less than a year. Building on this success, Fast Company reported recently that Red Bull intends to make more money out of content than it does out of energy drinks in the next five years. By producing on-brand content that is relevant to its customers, Red Bull has been able to extend its brand promise of Extreme energy into new frontiers. Essentially, technology is allowing Red Bull to own—rather than rent—its communications media. 

The same change is also taking place in conventional brands like DC Comics, which in recent years moved beyond traditional paper-based comic books to build a brand that is omnichannel. Now, the brand is just as comfortable in digital and physical environments as it is in print or film. 

What DC Comics understands better than most is that people who like comic books are fans—not consumers. Its website’s fan zone allows viewers to offer opinions, and DC Comics evolves its characters to keep fans engaged. So when the audience decided that Superman’s relationship with Lois Lane was old news, the new Justice League series saw Superman ditch his former flame to take up with Wonderwoman. 

DC Comics demonstrates that content is still king in the technological age. Brands can use technology to develop brand stories and engage in meaningful interaction with their customers. 

The role of manufacturing

Manufacturing is becoming more collaborative and customized. In order to succeed, companies are finding that they need to cocreate with their customers in ways previously unimaginable; this not only involves product development but also distribution channels and venture funding.

If you visit the Nike ID website you can see that consumers have become co-manufacturers. Visitors are customizing sneakers to their particular needs—and for a slight premium, they are choosing every detail down to the shoelace color, and having the Nike shoes delivered to their door. 

People also have new options for acquiring their products, from in-store purchase to home delivery or online showrooms. Pampers, Procter & Gamble’s largest global brand, now sells more product online through Amazon than it does through Walmart in the United States.

Seth Godin, author of Tribes and Purple Cow, decided to go directly to consumers to fund his next book. Using Kickstarter, an online funding platform for creative ventures, he raised more than $250,000 from readers in the first week, which in turn secured him a book contract with his publisher. 

The role of ethics and the environment

Greater transparency is also forcing brand owners to put ethics high on their agenda. Corporate social responsibility is no longer a buzzword, it’s now an integral part of how a brand should do business. And the environment is no longer a resource to be used to deliver a product, it has now become a balanced part of the branding equation.

Brands like Toms Shoes are demonstrating the power of putting social causes first. When Blake Mycoskie was travelling in Argentina in 2006 he noticed that many underprivileged children had no shoes to protect their feet. In response he created the one-for-one movement: for every pair of shoes purchased on Toms website another pair goes to a child in need.

Ikea describes its environmental program as the “never-ending list.” Rather than create a series of one-off obligations, Ikea has built a culture of social responsibility that is an ongoing and integral part of how it does business.

Timberland has also become increasingly transparent in communicating its initiatives and the changes made to its workforce welfare over the years. Visitors to its website can locate factory addresses, creating a new level of transparency about where products are made. The company also runs several initiatives to help communities in Vietnam, where many Timberland factories are located.

The future of branding

So, what does this mean for the future of branding? Companies need to evolve. They need to focus on innovation initiatives that build more responsive brands in a fluid environment. Many firms still treat digital media as its own work stream, separate from innovation. However, in an era where consumers expect a conversation with brands, all businesses are digital businesses and need to adapt accordingly. 

We’ve come a long way since the Industrial Revolution. The balance of power has shifted between brand and consumer, making it the responsibility of brand owners to respond. Meaningful dialogue, product customization, and bespoke experiences are the key to future success. Moreover, corporate social responsibility is now more than simply lip service. The new paradigm of branding—social branding—bodes well for us all as we move toward greater dialogue between brands and people.


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