Are brands clear about the role of social media?

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A LinkedIn post triggered an interesting conversation on the role of social media for both legacy and (for lack of any other phrase), ‘new-age’ brands. As is obvious now, many brands – both in B2C and B2B, consider social media presence to be mandatory. The common reference in this context are brand activities on YouTube, Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. A brand maybe active in a few or all of the above platforms – depending on the category, brand-fit, business objective or as is most common, simply having a ‘tick-box’ approach.

The rationalising is on the lines of ‘we must be there because our consumers are, or competition is’. That sounds like a fair argument as creating opportunities to see (the good old OTS measure from mass media advertising) your brand’s communication for the target audience is how the marketing monies should be spent. But just because a brand wants to show its ‘ad’ (disguised as content nowadays) it does not mean that the consumer is ready to accept it. That’s the key difference between traditional one-way communication and today’s digital world with easy ways to ignore a brand.

‘Fish were the fish are’- but there’s a caveat

The adoption of digital marketing and increased investments on social platforms is an understandable trend as consumers spend more time on such over the last few years. While television still commands a large share of media monies – especially when awareness and mass reach are key objectives, brands feel compelled to open social media accounts and invest behind creatives for such platforms. But there are a few thumb rules from old-world advertising which they seem to forget:

  • Advertising (ok ‘brand content’), is an interruption to whatever the audience set out to do on a media platform. A TV set is switched on to watch news, sports, shows, movies or some streaming content. A newspaper or magazine is read to seek news & views. Ditto for YouTube or Instagram – they are a means to escape, entertainment or some enriching content. An ad comes in the way, literally. So make it a reward in itself and not annoy the hell out of the viewer.
  • A brand’s work must suit the medium and feel ‘native’ to it. This again is not a new phenomenon – the best of radio spots had great jingles or entertaining conversations which made the best use of the audio medium. In other words, an ad must be as good as or better than the content in the medium. One can extrapolate it to a retail environment. While location is important for every retail brand, it is even more so for premium or luxury brands. You’ll notice that such brands will all be seen in a cluster in the high street, 5-star hotels or a certain kind of malls. In digital platforms such as Instagram or YouTube this is even more critical as user-generated content is phenomenally good over there – be it in entertainment, information or education. How can a brand’s communication match or better such output and hold viewer attention (who is anyway not interested in a brand selling anything or seeking a relationship or conversation with it)?

So ‘fish were the fish are’ but posting content that is no match to what’s around in that platform is merely to tick some box in a to-do list.

A good example of a brand ‘matching’ the content on the platform could be this:

The how-to approach along with the stunning visuals help hold our attention and feels native to Instagram.
Another product demo from the popular ‘Will it blend?’ series showing the toughness of the blender.

Social media posts: what’s the objective?

Brands adopt a presence on social media for several reasons:

  • create awareness: beyond just mass-reach platforms, effective use of social media can also help brands create awareness, especially for those with a niche audience
  • create affinity: leading to a ‘community’ of fans, make the brand attractive as an employer, position it as a voice of authority or expert
  • sell goods: platforms such as Instagram have made it easy to integrate e-commerce features and is being used by SMEs and established brands

Of the above, the sharpest objective is obviously the last one. The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the trend of online shopping and contactless delivery helping several categories including apparel, accessories and electronics. But from what I see of social media posts of most brands, be it legacy consumer goods brands, B2B or new-age app-driven brands, the emphasis is mostly on creating awareness or affinity.

To meet the objective of creating awareness, social platforms are used as a broadcast medium – to make announcements of new product launches, talent or project showcase and such like. It is essentially print or TVC adapted to the digital platform. Creating affinity is another common intent I see with social media posts meant to bring a smile, with ‘contextual’ posts. These could be posts which are relevant to a platform like LinkedIn.

Another variant of this approach is to create posts anchored on the category (food for food-ordering apps) and make it native to a platform like Instagram. These typically are in the form of memes, relying heavily on popular culture.

In my view, such posts which are meant to create ‘engagement’ in the form of likes and comments have a limited value. Such posts done consistently can create affinity towards the brand – make it appear cool. But that’s no guarantee of brand usage.

These typically lead to force-fitted or stretched posts in the name of moment marketing too.

B2B brands be it in product or service domains tend to use social media platforms to create awareness and build affinity (either for the talent brand or as a partner of choice) and enhance the ‘expert’ imagery.

In effect, there is a tick-box approach and a perception that social media presence is a must. It is very difficult to resist the temptation. Not all brand have the super-brand status of Apple which once had hundreds of thousands of followers without a single tweet. As of now, Apple has 8.1mn followers, 0 following and one pinned tweet. But many suffer from FOMO if they stay away from a social media platform or not participate in a moment marketing initiative. But I wonder if Instagram posts such as this add any value to the brand or are a match to any of the compelling reels and posts on that platform?

Ultimately, social media, even if done effetely can only be the proverbial icing on the cake. What really matters is the product or the service and how it manifests itself when the consumer interacts with it – through an app, website or on the product shelf. A brand’s social media work may make me smile and admire them for their creativity but truly matters is the product’s relevance in my life and the need to use it often when the need arises. If the social media activity can help achieve this in a small way, it can be considered effective.

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