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Can You Control Your Brand, or Just Share It?

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Joel Postman discusses social media implications to the corporate brand, including the definition of brand, and whether a company can control its brand, manage it, share it, or must give it over to the whims of consumers.
This chapter is from the book

Perceptions about "control" of the brand have caused some companies hesitation when it comes to adopting social media. They fear that giving too much control to outsiders will adversely affect the company's brand. In a world of consolidation and globalization, where the physical product is only a part of the company's differentiation, brand attributes have become increasingly important. Earlier, I mentioned that the CEO of Procter & Gamble suggested companies "let go" of their brands, yet this suggestion came from the chief executive of a company that created the position of brand manager. Clearly there is conflict here.

But these concerns come from both a misunderstanding of just what a brand is, and notions of whether a company actually can control its brand.

A company's brand is not merely its logo and company name. It's something far greater. Some companies, like Disney and Coca-Cola, do exert very strong control over certain elements of their brands, such as trademarks, images, logos, and product names. Many companies have made major investments in these components and are rightly concerned about managing them to best advantage.

Any discussion of social media implications to the corporate brand must begin with a definition of brand, and some agreement as to just whether the company can control its brand, manage it, share it, or must give it over to the whims of consumers.

Merriam Webster defines brand as

  • "a class of goods identified by name as the product of a single firm or manufacturer."

True, but not very useful for this discussion.

David Ogilvy, often called the father of advertising, defined a brand as

  • "the intangible sum of a product's attributes: its name, packaging, and price, its history, its reputation, and the way it's advertised."

I define a brand as the sum total of our experiences with a company, its products, services, and employees, and the way those experiences shape our perception of the company.

Under these broader, modern definitions, it becomes obvious that a company cannot own or control its brand. It can, however, manage its brand, and, thanks to social media, participate more actively in discussions that affect its brand.

It's unlikely that at any time in history companies were truly able to control their brands. However, with each successive generation of communications tools, the idea that a company owns its brand exclusively has grown increasingly harder to support. Perhaps one hundred years ago, when electronic communications was in its infancy, there were only a few channels through which the voice of consumers could be heard and amplified. Over the course of media history, various developments, such as broadcast news, and later on, the web, gave new voice to consumers.

With the advent of social media, consumer voices have grown exponentially louder, and online conversations have begun more and more to shape a company's brand. Smart companies recognize this fact, and as part of their social media strategy, embrace it and take advantage of it.

So just how much "control" is possible in the world of social media, and how much is desirable? And when is it advantageous for a company to loosen its perceived grip on the brand?

Corporate Identity in Social Media

One issue that will come up for nearly every large company is the ownership, use, and misuse, of the company's corporate identity. This includes the company's name, logo, website URLs, product names, and other visual elements associated with the company's brand.

Not only will the company want to properly employ its identity in its own social media initiatives, but there will be circumstances under which the company will need to review unauthorized third-party use of its identity and make decisions on what, if anything, to do about it. In some cases it may actually be desirable for the company to "look the other way" when third parties use the company's name without the company's approval.

Let's begin with some suggestions for securing elements of the company's brand, and then look at situations in which, instead of policing the brand, the company might be better off "sharing" it with consumers.

"Managing" the Company's Message

Messaging is an important part of your communications strategy and is therefore important to your social media strategy. As I've mentioned elsewhere in the book, social media are merely a new set of communications tools, which will require learning and understanding, but to which the following common sense, and tried and true communications practices still apply:

  • Messaging is still important. There are key ideas you would like to convey about your company, whether through traditional channels or through social media, like blogs.
  • There are ways to stay on message authentically. Don't edit executive social media content like blog posts. Loosely tie social media initiatives to marketing messages but don't parrot marketing buzzwords or taglines.
  • Communications must be two-way. The corporation must participate in the conversation.
  • Communications alone can't fix most things. True participatory communications and multi-dimensional discussion mean not only does the company give people a means of discussion, but that the company listens and responds to what's being said, and it empowers all of its people to do so as well.
  • Negative buzz about your company is not something to be squelched but rather an opportunity to regain control of the agenda.
  • With common sense, knowledge of what works and what doesn't, and understanding of social media etiquette, training, and policies, nearly any company can engage in low-risk, high-value social media. These are the keys to managing your social media programs in a way that will build your brand and will actively involve customers and others in the process.

Many large companies have specialists or entire groups devoted to messaging. In order to achieve the company's business objectives, it is desirable to identify the specific audiences the company wishes to reach and the messages most appropriate for each audience.

There are many ways to ensure that the company's messages are incorporated into your social media programs without compromising authenticity, credibility, and spontaneity. As in any other form of corporate communications, it's wise to guide the participants in your social media programs to help them best support your overall communications strategy by providing them with messaging documents, editorial calendars/guidelines, briefings, and other tools that you normally use for this purpose.

In terms of messaging, there are several major distinctions between social media and traditional communications channels. The processes that underlie your social media programs must be very subtle and must not interfere with authenticity, conversational tone, immediacy, and other characteristics that make social media so effective. The "output" of your social media programs will be subject to fewer internal reviews, and in some cases to no review whatsoever.

An executive blog is one example of a social media program in which it is not that difficult to introduce some degree of messaging and thematic oversight. Many communicators are worried that the CEO and other executives will not be able to stay on topic, or they will wander far from the discussions that are important to the company's business goals. This is a situation requiring careful consideration. Many would argue that any degree of influence over an executive blogger would result in a lack of authenticity or credibility, or worse, introduce too much marketing hype into the equation. You must remember, however, that all your communications vehicles belong to the company and have a job to do. They can all be maintained in a way that retains the virtues of authenticity, credibility, transparency, and so on, while still allowing you to use them to achieve business and communications results.

Although it is not acceptable for marketing to write the CEO's blog posts, for example, it is both acceptable and smart for the CEO's communications team to provide some kind of input as to the topics, themes, and points of view they want the CEO to project.

One way to communicate these key messages or themes to any of the company's bloggers is to provide regular briefings on appropriate topics. A more formal approach is to use an editorial calendar that outlines well in advance key events and milestones and the timing and themes for blog posts in support of these.

Another element of your blogging program should be blogging platforms. These are short documents identifying a handful of key themes that each blogger should focus on and key messages that the blogger needs to convey. I always suggest a balance when guiding bloggers on what to write about. You should design messaging documents and platforms that guide the writing, but provide enough latitude to allow the blogger to write on any relevant and interesting topic.

The art of balancing the company's strategic communications objectives with spontaneous, engaging writing is what defines a good company blog. It is only through experience, a pragmatic approach, and constant course correction that your company's blog and other social media initiatives will achieve this balance.

Locking Up Your Company's Social Network Identity

Social media, with its often loose standards regarding user identity, has opened up a Pandora's Box of opportunities for confusion about who is, and isn't, an authorized company spokesperson.

One step you can take to secure certain elements of your brand, and to avoid such confusion, is to register the company's name on as many popular social networks and social media sites, like Twitter, MySpace, and Facebook, as possible. Unfortunately, nearly without exception, these sites will allow anyone to register any company name without authentication. The user agreements for these sites, sometimes called the Terms of Service (TOS), often leave it to the owners of company names and brand names to police the names online.


Lack of controls on many social media sites has resulted in numerous instances of brandjacking, the unauthorized use of a company's brand. Some of these are good humored, others can cause problems for companies, and many are actually quite positive and beneficial.

Although I previously made recommendations for controlling the company's brand identity online ahead of time, there are often situations in which corporate communicators, sometimes urged on by the company's legal department when trademark and copyright violations occur, must make judgments regarding unauthorized use as it comes to the company's attention. These decisions should be made on the basis of the benefits versus the potential harm to the company presented by each case. It is not always to the company's benefit to crack down on every unauthorized use of its logo, product photography, name, and so on.

This is a difficult concept for many companies to understand, after many years of very strict regulation of these things. Marketing 101 tells us that we should not allow unauthorized use of the company's name, logo, and product photos. However, this is not Marketing 101—it's social media. Smart companies need to recognize that the rules have changed.

There are many occasions when a company's brand is brandjacked for the better. A search on nearly any popular company or product on Facebook will reveal dozens of Facebook groups and pages devoted to the company, most of them not authorized by the company. For example, a search on Facebook groups for Bang and Olufsen reveals over 50 groups devoted to the company and its products. Many of these feature the company's logo, official product photography, and links to the company's website. It is difficult to tell which are authorized by the company, and ironically, several claim to be "the only official Bang and Olufsen Facebook page." There are thousands of groups like these on Facebook, often using copyright logos and images.

There are over 500 Facebook groups devoted to Apple products, nearly all of which are not approved by the company. Note that together, the four shown in Figure 4.1 account for over 45,000 Apple enthusiasts (though there may be some overlap) and all are showing recent growth in membership.

Figure 4.1

Figure 4.1 Facebook groups devoted to Apple products.

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