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When I first saw this headline on a blog post, I was intrigued. The author was quoting Don Schultz, Professor Emeritus at Northwestern’s Medill School and the “father of integrated marketing” at the recent Content Marketing World conference. Mr. Schultz was referencing a ten-year study on brand preference in a number of categories which shows a decline in brand preference and corresponding increase in acceptance and use of generic brands.

In a recent Forbes magazine article, Mr. Schultz gave this explanation of the study and conclusions he and his co-author, Martin Block, have reached:

Based on preliminary results of a new ten year, longitudinal study of social media and social media users, (1,100,000+ online questionnaire responses , covering 73 fmcg categories and 1,500+ individual brands) a new research study conducted by professors in the Integrated Marketing Communication Department at Northwestern University’s Medill School, found that heavy users of social media (primarily Facebook) when asked for brand preferences in various product categories, showed higher levels of specific “No Brand Preference” as a brand category choice, than those who used less social media. Also, as social media usage increased (primarily Facebook) over time by respondents, there was a measurable decline in specific product brand preferences in a majority of the product brand categories covered in the study.

The study also found that only 11% of the respondents “regularly asked for or sought advice” from others, indicating that social media is used primarily for “social conversations” among users, not to provide product recommendations to others. At the other end of the spectrum, nearly 19% of social media users said they “never seek or give advice” about products or services through social media or other forms of word-of-mouth.

Findings from this study seem to confirm that social media usage is primarily for “social purposes” and the potential for marketers invading social media vehicles or encouraging social media users to become product advocates is not only limited, but, may actually be counterproductive in terms of building brand value and brand relationships. (my emphasis).

After viewing other presentations of this study made by Messrs. Schultz and Block, I have only one conclusion to make.

ARE YOU KIDDING ME?

This finding is based on a large sample from a very limited source. – primarily Facebook users. Putting aside my own personal feelings (mostly negative) about Facebook, I am very surprised that The Medill School at Northwestern University (a highly respected institution) would allow this study to be presented under their auspices. The fact that Drs. Schultz and Block found that only 11% of users want to hear about brands on social networks when the study was primarily from that medium seems rather naïve. I suspect that if you asked anyone if they want to hear about brands on a mass medium, the results would be similar.

But the real naiveté is concluding that this means that marketers and brands using social media are “killing their brands”.

Correlation doesn’t automatically mean causation.
I’m not surprised that heavy Facebook users have increased their statement of “no brand preference” in favor of more acceptance and usage of generic brands. Nielsen sales results shows that many people, not just heavy Facebook users, feel the same way. Just because the number correlate, doesn’t mean there is a cause and effect relationship.

This statement flies in the face of many other positive studies on the value of social media, as many marketers report that they get good results from social media. An IAB study released in July reported that 90% of consumers back brands after interacting via social media.

The 2013 Social Media Marketing Industry Report from Social Media Examiner reported that 89% of the 3,000+ marketers they surveyed indicated that their social media efforts have generated more exposure and 75% reported positive increases in brand traffic.

Can social media kill brands?
Yes. There are plenty of bad uses of social media vehicles by marketers.

Does social media kill brands?
No. When brands use social media as a legitimate tool for disseminating relevant information and value to a community, social media works.

Even when heavy Facebook users are turning to store brands!

– Don Morgan

Don Morgan is 2013/14 President of PSAMA, and Head Rainmaker at Raindance Consulting, a branding, social media, and business development consulting company in Seattle. He can be reached at dmorgan@raindanceconsulting.com.

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With Hurricane Sandy devastating the Northeast last week, I find myself clicking through photo albums of the destruction, curious to catch a glimpse of what these people are going through. Studying the photos, I can’t help but think of my experience living in Tuscaloosa last year when a massive tornado leveled so much of my beloved town. When I think about the weeks – and months – after the storm, the destruction isn’t the only thing that stands out in my mind. I remember the groups, individuals, and brands that swarmed the city to help those in-need.

Imagine being without electricity – totally disconnected – during a time of destruction. You’re unable to turn on the TV and check the status of your city. Unable to read the news on your laptop. Unable to pick up your cell phone and text your friends and family. That’s where Duracell stepped in, setting up PowerRelief mobile charging stations near areas of destruction. Whether it’s Tuscaloosa, AL or Battery Park, NY, Duracell provides a free place for individuals to charge their electronics, use computers with internet access, and watch live TV news coverage.

After a natural disaster, roads are littered with nails, glass, and sharp wooden shards. Whether it’s your car or an emergency truck making its way down the street, avoiding a flat tire is nearly impossible. BFGoodrich Tires offered assistance, setting up an emergency repair station for individuals and emergency vehicles whose tires were punctured driving through areas of destruction.

During a time of devastation, the Tide Loads of Hope station rolls into town, bringing with it more than 32 energy-efficient washers and dryers. Families drop off their laundry and the Tide crew washes, dries, and folds the clothing for free. Why does Tide do this? “Because, as we’ve learned, sometimes even the littlest things can make a big, big difference.”

For these brands to offer assistance in times of need simply makes sense. These aid stations fit organically with each brand and are undeniably beneficial for the victims whose lives have been directly impacted by the storm. Not only that, but they are infinitely valuable for a brand’s reputation. Whether it’s media coverage of the generosity or the brand’s ability to help a few thousand people – and along with it create new brand Zealots – the benefits are through the roof.

Just look at me. Duracell, Tide, and BFGoodrich stick out so vividly in my memory, I’m telling you about them right now. If that’s not Zealotry in-action, I don’t know what is. Hats off to the brands who are offering their aid during times of need. Do you have stories of other brands who have offered assistance? I’d love to hear what you have to say.

Guest Relations Marketing just completed a comprehensive rebranding of Juvenile Justice Foundation to…

drum roll, please…

youthSpark.

Radically changing up a brand’s identity should never be taken lightly. Especially as it pertains to the brand name. In this case, there were several mitigating factors that ultimately led to a radical rebranding, including a new name.

youthSpark is aptly named to give voice and justice to youth. This organization is literally in the streets on a white-hot issue: underage prostitution and trafficking. Human sex trafficking is a global issue and unfortunately Atlanta is one of the leading centers for this illegal activity. youthSpark is committed to exposing this subject, promoting justice for our youth and helping them be restored to a productive future.  Join in on Facebook and Twitter to affirm your support!

It is natural to want to embrace the new. As consumers, we are curious about what we’ve not seen or touched before. As marketers, we want to try the newest media or promotional invention, if for no other reason than the fear of competitively being left behind.

A recent briefing from Trendwatching.com highlights the reasons behind an exponential growth of “new” products and services.

But, perhaps, embracing the “new” is not the right answer for your brand. Consider the authors concluding point:

“Last but not least, it does not mean all consumer attention will be focused on the new. There will still be endless value in heritage brands, known to deliver constant, trusted quality and provenance. There will be value in well-told, compelling stories. In comfort. In tradition. In the local. In curation of existing products. In tailoring. Remember, no trend applies to all consumers, all of the time, and the ‘new’ doesn’t always kill the old.”

This is a powerful roadmap for building enduring brands… new or old.

Ron Johnson, the CEO of JCPenney, understands branding and the value it represents. The following article is worthy on its own, but three key takeaways:

1.  Creativity – looking at the business differently – is the starting point of success.

2.  Experience is the core issue – not product.

3.  Develop a mission that you and your staff will believe in.

From The Hub magazine:

“Improvement merely lets you hit your numbers … Creativity is what transforms,” says JCPenney ceo Ron Johnson in a Fortune profile by Jennifer Reingold (3/19/12). That was the main lesson Ron says he learned while he was at Target, after gambling on introducing Michael Graves designer products in a big way. “The math was simple,” says Ron. “If I didn’t sell one piece but people looked differently at the other 96% of products we’d win. It’s always about mind share, not market share.” Ron is now bringing a similar sensibility — which of course he also brought to Apple stores — to JCPenney.

The essential vision, once again, is to create “a place where the experience (is) as important as the products themselves.” This apparently was more Ron’s vision at Apple stores than it was Steve Jobs’s. “He said it’d be a store for creative professionals,” says Ron. “I said, ‘Well, then I’m not coming. If you want it to be a store for all Americans, sign me up.” Ron also “persuaded Jobs to nix commissions for salespeople, arguing that they should give customers the best advice, not the advice that earns them the most.” Ron says, “You can motivate by a mission or motivate by money… the mission will work.”

It certainly worked at Apple stores, where sales per square foot average $6,000. But will it work at JCPenney, where sales per square foot are currently $146 and the shopping experience is a safe distance from either Apple or Target? Fitch, the ratings agency, has “downgraded the company’s debt to junk level,” based on Ron’s strategy, the core of which is a “return to the company’s original values,” espoused by founder James Cash Penney as a “morally upright place.” Ron Johnson, eternally an optimist, says his plan will work. “What you can’t do is chicken out,” he says. “If you had looked at the data on the Genius Bar after a year and a half, we should have taken it out of the store… There’s no reason to sell an idea short. The only risk would be to not fulfill the dream.”

Companies are being crunched by the economy. Consumers are demanding “green” products. They want brands to represent social causes important to them. What’s a company to do?

For starters, all the above.

Authenticity is more critical than ever. Here’s a reality: consumers expect, not desire, expect companies to act responsibility and to deliver to more than simply the bottom line. This means product, operations and how your product/service is delivered needs to be figured out before you run out the door and “market” to others. Something about ‘walking the talk.’

Check out the Urban Land Institute (www.uli.com). Developers are often criticized for mowing down trees and paving over every field. But, this organization is leading that industry in some terrific ways. They do a great job of bringing public and private sector together to build better communities. The right things are being explored and pursued by this fine organization.

Zealotry marketing is an approach that is inside-out. And, the stakes are rising. Value today includes being environmentally and socially responsible. Not a bad concept, quite frankly.

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