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Building a brand in the age of social media


On the Harvard Business Review website Patrick Barwise and Seán Meehan offer advice on brand-building, pointing out that the rise of social media means it has never been more important to get the branding fundamentals right.

Although social media has shifted power to consumers, the authors insist it is wrong to think that traditional marketing activities will become irrelevant. They say developing a brand and reliably delivering on a "compelling brand promise" is more urgent than ever.

Barwise and Meehan have worked on marketing strategy across industries, focusing on new media over the past 15 years and recently on social media marketing. Having been directly involved in successful new media start-ups – including one specialising in customer advisory panels and online brand communities – they have come to the following conclusion:

"The companies that will succeed in this environment are exploiting the many opportunities presented by social media while keeping an unwavering eye on their brand promise, and they are judiciously revising the marketing playbook rather than trying to rewrite it."

Through social media, companies can gain "rich, unmediated customer insights, faster than ever before".

This, say the authors, represents a profound shift as historically, market research was product-centric rather than customer-centric.

They explain: "Marketers asked questions about attitudes and behaviours relevant to their brands. More recently we have seen the rise of ethnographic research to help them understand how both a brand and its wider product category fit into people's lives.

"Social networks take this a step further by providing powerful new ways to explore consumers’ lives and opinions."


Barwise and Meehan say all companies should incorporate social media into their "marketing playbooks". Their analysis of the strategies and performance of a wide range of organisations leads them to suggest that great brands share four fundamental qualities:

1) They offer and communicate a clear, relevant customer promise.

2) They build trust by delivering on that promise.

3) They drive the market by continually improving the promise.

4) They seek further advantage by innovating beyond the familiar.

The authors comment: "These basics don't sound like rocket science, but we've been surprised by how many companies still fail to get them right. Social media can be used to reinforce all four, even as they make them more urgent."

Barwise and Meehan use the example of Virgin Atlantic Airways to show how social media can be used to "buttress the branding basics".


VAA is expected to provide innovation, fun, informality, honesty, value and a caring attitude, with that promise reinforced at "every customer touch point". This includes marketing materials, call centres and travel agents, as well as other travel websites.

The authors say VAA scans sites to find out what people are saying, and where there is misinformation the visitors usually provide corrections without the company having to get involved.

Barwise and Meehan say: "Like other companies, VAA uses social media to check that the brand promise is both understood and relevant. It also works to keep all its social media activities true to and in support of the brand values."


Keeping customers informed is essential, otherwise a slip-up has the potential to become a "trust-eroding PR disaster".

VAA was faced with such a situation last spring during the Icelandic volcanic ash crisis. Because the company's website couldn't keep pace with the rapid changes to the situation, Facebook and Twitter were used to communicate with customers.

"This was well received by some," observe the authors, "but VAA learned from irate callers and site visitors that it needed to do an even better job of providing information in a crisis."

As a result, the company is modifying its site to include a "rapid response" link to real-time Twitter and Facebook updates.

Fergus Boyd, Virgin Atlantic’s head of e-business, explains: "Twitter is no more than a soundbite. Facebook can be an article. The website is for in-depth detail. They all need to signpost each other."


The biggest social media opportunity lies in "gathering insights to drive continual incremental improvements", say Barwise and Meehan.

When VAA discovered that its loyalty-scheme members were complaining online about irritating and unnecessary security information requests, it eliminated the problem by creating a secure opt-in service. Responding to online-community suggestions, the company also launched a system to arrange taxi-sharing for passengers from the same flight.


Barwise and Meehan point out that VAA frequently wins awards for innovation, and fresh insights from social media reinforce this aspect of the brand.

"For instance," they say, "Facebook interactions helped the company appreciate an important but largely unrecognised segment: consumers planning a big trip… so VAA launched Vtravelled, a site dedicated to inspirational journeys.

"Customers moderate the conversation and exchange information, stories, and advice… VAA enters the discussion using a traveller's tone of voice, not pushing a product but offering advice. The site leads to some sales, but its main benefit to VAA comes from brand reinforcement and novel customer insights."

Finally, the authors offer advice to companies who wish to "keep their eye on the ball" in their quest for mastery of social media in brand building:

• Start with your brand promise and let it guide all your actions in social media.

• Use social media primarily for insight rather than sales.

• Strive to go viral, but protect the brand.

• Engage, but follow the social rules.

The One Thing You Must Get Right When Building a Brand
Patrick Barwise and Seán Meehan
Harvard Business Review