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The Dissident Spin Doctor: Dear brand manager — vanilla is irrelevant

Date posted: July 9, 2013

by Emma King (@EmmainSA) I’m sure I’m not alone when looking back to high school days, and remembering that feeling of a desperate need for acceptance, that envy of the popular girls who hung around at school discos with identikit blond hair and mini-skirts, while dating the surfers.

[pullquote]So, brands need to move away from grouping people by demographics, and instead group them by communities. And communities are formed around behaviour, rather than round geographical locations, or ages, or racial classifications. Value for a brand should not be measured by how big their communities are, but instead on how the brand responds to these behaviours.[/pullquote]

I wasn’t part of that gang, but neither was I an outcast – instead I floated around in between groups with the rest of sporty people, misfits, bookworms, artists and emos. The regular bog standard school kid.

Looking back isn’t it funny how many of those ‘cool’ kids are so mind-numbingly dull now? The hot surfers are fat and bald, while the cool girls are suburban housewives, contemplating the spread of their mid-riffs and comparing bowel movement of their kids.

Now it’s the oddballs, the geeks, who are living exciting and amazing lives. One bookish girl I went to school with has published a number of novels; another is head fashion buyer for a top UK high street chain; a number of them have opened their own successful businesses. They got there because they honed in on their unique thing – their passion for books, or their funny drawings and oddball outfit choices.

The point is that in the compulsion to be cool, to be the popular ones, perhaps those cool kids forgot how to develop a personality. They tried to be everything to anyone, to conform to the appeal of the masses and not to stand out. They became vanilla.

I wonder sometimes whether this is true, too, for brands.

In those dark old days of marketing – pre social media and digital revolution – it made sense. Creating and airing a TV ad was extortionately expensive. Print and radio only slightly less so. But those mediums reached loads of people, so there was a ‘spray and pray’ mentality. Shout the message far and wide, and make it as generic as possible in order to ‘appeal’ to as many as possible. Make it vanilla.

The thing is, we don’t need to do that anymore.

With our digital landscape and social media, we can be as niche as we want to. And in a million different ways instead of one.Emma King

I like the analogy of geek-like person who’s obsessed with an obscure genre  of music or band. In the past, the band probably couldn’t market itself very much. Local music stations wouldn’t have played their music, as such a small percentage of their audience wouldn’t have liked the music. There would have been no point in them be featured in or advertising in a music publication for the same reasons.

But when social media opened up the internet, it allowed all sorts of people from around the world to connect and form communities. And suddenly these geeks, alone in their physical communities, could be part of a huge virtual community of like minded people. The obscure band that appeals to those people suddenly had a big community of people that it can talk too, without having to ‘waste’ communicating to the generic public. And these people – from millions of different walks of life – are united, for a time, in a shared behaviour.

The problem, then, is brands continue to apply the traditional model of communication to social media. They try to build as many likes as possible and they make information, ‘content’, as wide reaching and generic as possible in order to appeal to as many people as possible.

But, as my old colleague, Richard Stacy (who’s just published a book on social media based on his principle of ‘The Three Percent Rule’ – in which he advocates ignoring 97% of your audience) notes, that’s not what social media is made for.

It’s about creating one or two connections, with the relevant people, rather than a million connections with randoms.

So, brands need to move away from grouping people by demographics, and instead group them by communities. And communities are formed around behaviour, rather than round geographical locations, or ages, or racial classifications. Value for a brand should not be measured by how big their communities are, but instead on how the brand responds to these behaviours.

This translates through to traditional PR and media relations too. My little PR soul shudders when I see generic press releases farmed out to the media outlets which have the biggest reach.

We need instead to look at how we can identify and work with communities, how we can build relationships with them, and how we work out who or what influences them. And as much as those communities may be a bunch of journalists, the communities may just as likely be a group of people who are patriotic about a country; a club of car enthusiasts; some geeks obsessed with an obscure band; or a physical community (for example in a suburb near a good school).

To go back to the cool kids at school analogy, then.  Brands who want to succeed in the digital space, and the new world of PR, need to become MORE specific, not less. As we form our decisions based on multiple outlets and touch points, instead of a few, and as we create more and more communities around us according to our shared behaviour and beliefs, a brand that becomes generic -vanilla – will become irrelevant.

It’s not the person with the most friends that is the most powerful. It’s the one that is the most unique that can become something strong.

Emma King is Head of PR at The Jupiter Drawing Room (Cape Town). She is a columnist for MarkLives on PR and communication issues. You can find her on Twitter at @EmmainSA

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