Is social media really responsible for ‘new’ branding rules?

I recently heard that social media was responsible for the ‘new’ way we look at branding: Instead of locking the brand away in a vault, only to be touched by men in crisp suits, slicked hair and a fifth of whiskey in their bottom left desk drawer, it is now not only acceptable but recommended that companies encourage their audience to tinker a bit with the brand, in effect making it their own. In this manner, the extent of the audience’s brand affinity may be measured. After all, a brand isn’t merely what the company thinks it is, it’s what everyone else thinks it is.

While I can see many places where this is true (power hungry designers/webmasters circa 2000 seem to have disappeared), inwardly I find the importance placed on social media for this result laughable. Anyone who stumbled on fan fiction for Lord of the Rings in 2002 knows the writers were likely writing similar fiction about Dungeons and Dragons ten years before anyone heard of MySpace. Anyone who ever traded mixtapes knows that social media didn’t cause music sharing to happen—Napster and Spotify just made it easier. Anyone who went to a party at any point in the last 30 years where a favorite toy, hobby, or sports team was turned into the party’s theme—in a completely homemade manner, without the use of store bought party supplies—knows that social media was nowhere near this brand investment.

Actually, parties are an excellent place to see devotion to a brand. Take this third birthday party I recently did for my daughter based on her Ugly Doll, Ox (a blue Ox has been her woobie since she was 6 months old, and I have replaced his chewed off arms more times than I can count; we have two back up Oxen as well as a full size green Ox). Anyone who has thrown a themed party knows the planning can balloon out of control, and that there is a lot of experimenting to figure out how to make it look like the real X without actually being the real X. Sometimes a little bit of homemade-ness adds to the charm, sometimes it detracts; finding the right balance is key.

Obviously we wanted all of our guests to have a good time, but we focused our creative efforts on the three year olds by putting all decorations on their sight level, starting with Ox who welcomed them at the front door:

We continued the fun with wayfinding made of other Ugly Dolls, which started just inside the door and lead through the house to the two bathrooms and the party spaces.

We had hundreds of balloons and a stencil of Ox which everyone was encouraged to trace on their balloons of choice. Even the adults were giddy over them—it looked like a jellyfish hideout with all the strings hanging down.

And of course we had a ridiculous number of from-scratch home made cupcakes, slaved over by yours truly. Thanks to my husband’s sure hand for cutting out the Ox and Mr. Kasoogie cake toppers I’d “designed”.

We also made the birthday girl her own crown to wear while she blew out the candles:

One of my most inspired moments was the Pin-the-arm-on-the-Ox game. I wasn’t sure how it was going to go over with the three year olds, but everyone took a turn or two and laughed at where the arms ended up.

As the party wound down, we handed out favors. We started with 15 bags but we were so busy with the party that we forgot to stage and shoot them all beforehand. Inside each of these bags was an Ugly Doll, a bag of buddy food (that’s what my daughter calls jelly belly jelly beans) and a small set of watercolors to paint their new buddy, just like my daughter paints Ox.

The kids were giddy, many of the adults said it was the best kid’s party they’d ever been to, and my daughter was thrilled.

Before you go off thinking that I posted this to prove that I’m some kind of super mom, I assure you that I did not and am not. I posted it to make the following point: I would never in a million years go to extremes like this for something like Polly Pockets or Barbie. It’s because this is a brand that resonates with me, my husband, and my daughter that I (and my husband) put this much time and effort into the planning and execution. We love the Ugly Doll brand!

And we didn’t need social-media-influenced-“new”-branding-rules to encourage us to monkey with the UD brand to make it our own!

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Beach Blanket Branding

After a week without power post-Irene, I decided enough was a enough and took a well-deserved vacation to the beach. While I was there I was overwhelmed daily with thoughts like the following: What in the world was she thinking? Does he realize he doesn’t look as good as he thinks he does? Why aren’t the other members in that family telling her about that?

It finally occurred to me that sitting on a beach watching people walk by in all manner of get-ups offers some spectacular metaphors for branding.

If you really have ‘got it’, flaunt it.
I saw an attractive woman at the beach with a lovely God-given body (ie, no visible plastic surgeries or implants, which makes her 20x more attractive in my book) in a suit that was meant to show it off in a tasteful manner. The cut of it was perfect for her, no bulges or unsightly wardrobe malfunction potential anywhere to be seen. While she was the envy of every woman and the desire of every man, everything about her body language said that she was awkward in her own skin. After about a half hour on the beach, despite it being warm and her having no sign of a sunburn (and having shellacked her skin with sunscreen) she wrapped herself in a caftan and put on a large brimmed hat to sit under an umbrella. I watched other people to see what their reactions were, and from what I could tell, besides wondering what her story was, most people moved away from her.

Branding moral: You can be the best looking brand out there, but if you behave in a self-conscious manner, you’ll convince others that you’re not worth squat and will therefore be overlooked.

Transparency is good—unless it’s not.
Going to the beach and being comfortable in one’s skin is awesome, but going to the beach and making everyone around you uncomfortable because you are is definitely not. This may be a little sexist, but if a woman decides to go to a public beach in America and remove her top, it’s nothing more than a momentary shock. If a man decides to go to a public beach in America and remove his shorts, that’s TMI for most people. I’m all for letting it hang out at the beach, but I certainly don’t want to see that hanging out anywhere near my three-year-old daughter.

Branding moral: If there is something about your product/service that might make potential customers uncomfortable, find a way to present it that won’t leave them feeling like they need to shower afterwards.

Be consistent in how you package your brand.
The house we rented was in a fairly dense neighborhood, so I saw a lot of people on and off the beach through the course of a week. Some take the opportunity to let their hair down very, very seriously, and while I respect that this might be the only 7 days of the year in which this can happen, it can still be shocking. While Mr. Transparency (see above) definitely won the prize for lack of clothing, I still saw a lot of people, who off the beach (and I assume in regular life) dressed extremely conservatively, wearing suits that were wildly revealing. It wasn’t often that this was a good thing, either.

I’m not coming at this from a prototypical American beach wear Puritan perspective; I appreciate feeling the sun warming my lily white skin as much as the next person, and in no way set myself up as a paragon of beach babedom. However, I do try to find suits that at least somewhat match my offshore sensibilities. After all, what if I meet a Fortune 500 client on the beach and I’m wearing a Borat suit? Would they take me seriously as a brand professional? Only if they’re looking for a Borat on the Beach sequel, I suppose.

Branding moral: If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s a duck. If it doesn’t do at least two of these, it could very well be a rhino.  



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