News & Views

Opinion / Got Clout?

by Contagious Contributor

Marcus Wenner, strategy director at Prime PR joins the broad brands debate, arguing that the power to influence the conversation should be a key focus for brands

Read John V. Willshire's original article here, and responses from Martin Weigel and Mark Earls.

The tables have turned on brand strategy. A new landscape has emerged through two major shifts accelerated by digital: social as the new normal, and the rise of the 'awakened' consumer, demanding more of brands and corporations when it comes to their role in society. This is fundamentally changing the conditions for brands, even more than we might perceive at first glance.

Awareness is still the hard currency for brands. But this is not an article on building awareness. In the emerging new landscape, the old purchase funnel is disrupted and indirect channels such as social media increasingly drive consumer behaviour. To be competitive in this marketplace, not only must we adjust the communication tactics, but also challenge the way we think of brands.

The traditional view of brands is basically as a message or promise to the consumer. This worked well when we could concentrate on building front-of-mind awareness, speaking directly to the consumer using advertising with a simple message, without addressing the link between the corporation and the brand. But as we all know, that bubble has burst.

We have to rethink the brand model. Yes, quite a few of the old tools don't work, but the flipside is that there are new opportunities to be competitive by embracing the new logic. Obviously, people still have problems and demands. Consumers are not against brand per se; rather they are often indifferent (for example, only 1% of Facebook brand "fans" engage with the brands they are fans of, according to a study by the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute)

Rather than aiming for consumers to engage with brands, it's time for brands to engage with consumers. When the way consumers think and act is increasingly based on the ongoing conversation in social and earned media, the real strength of a brand is not about recognition or number of impressions - it's about its ability to influence the conversation in ways that benefits business. It's about "brand clout".

An example of a brand with increasing clout is Chipotle. Through a couple of really beautiful campaigns (such as the Scarecrow commercial currently running) it is building (and capitalising on) brand influence in the broader topic of sustainability in the fast food industry.

The starting point of build clout is an understanding of the bigger picture and knowing what current conversations to participate in and potentially influence. Addressing a "hot topic" in people's conversations is a skill politicians have mastered to perfection. But strangely, all too often, brands seem to operate in a vacuum, sticking with one static message. A recent example of an attempt to address a specific conversation is IKEA Australia's Time for Life campaign, tapping into a conversation among families struggling with work-life balance.

So what does it take to be influential? Clearly it's more than the sheer numbers of reach and frequency. Social media tools as Kred, Klout and PeerIndex all have different algorithms for calculating an index score of social influence. Although these types of metrics sometimes get critiqued for not showing actual influence, the logic behind them says something about what it takes to influence the conversation. Beyond the amount of followers and tweets, influence is also about the multiplier effect through retweets etc.

Through understanding the anatomy of conversational influence, it's quite possible to punch above your weight. An example of this type of "leveraged" influence is the small organisation Civil Rights Defenders. It's Civil Rights Captcha project became an international authority in global media. The key factors for success were entering the right conversation (Internet hatred and "trolls") and focusing initially on an elite group with high Twitter influence.

But to build sustainable brand clout, you can only come so far by understanding the context and being present in the conversation. Coming back to the rise of the "awakened" consumer, this is really the era of transparency. In today's marketplace, trust basically eats marketing messages for breakfast. As Brian Solis of the Altimeter Group has shown in a 'Pillars of influence'-model, trust is really a key factor to realise social influence.

Perhaps the need to rebuild the brand model to enable a new form of influence is the missing link between the corporate and product brands. The winning brands will be those who are able to outperform both in building brand trust through transparency and responsibility, as well as mastering the tools and tactics to actively influence conversations. The winners will be the ones that got clout.

Marcus Wenner is strategy director at Prime PR