How social media changed corporate branding and marketing

Different colors of chalk ends with the logos of the main social media sites (facebook, twitter, etc.) on the ends
“The Art of Social Media” by mkhmarketing, via Flickr Creative Commons is licensed under CC BY 4.0

“If you create good branded content, they will come,” sums up the philosophy that was championed during my masters degree courses on social media marketing. At the time, that was the prominent thought, and still continues to be in most organizations.

The reality, however, is much different. Brands have spent billions to create content and haven’t garnered the massive loyal following they thought it would.

But Douglas Holt will tell you that crowdcultures are better at producing content, and for a lot less money and time, that resonates on social media. He demonstrates by highlighting brands who have spent billions to create amazing content on sites such as YouTube, Instagram, etc. are getting trounced in the rankings, by individuals with limited production ability.

Instead, he’ll tell you not to focus on the crowdculture. In the March 2016 edition of Harvard Business Review (Branding in the age of social media), Crowdcultures, according to Holt, are digital crows that serve “as very effective and prolific innovators of culture.”

As examples, he highlights:

  • Pre-industrial food culture: Those individuals who are concerned about, and challenging, our industrial methods of producing food.
  • Lad culture: A tongue-in-cheek form of sexism stemmed from frustrations of over-sensitivity by feminists
  • Body-positive culture: Those frustrated with the unrealistic ideals in media, especially of women

Conventional marketing would tell you to find your target market along demographic and benefit lines and promote to them, or to highlight your organization’s core values that best along with the largest segment of the market. Following the crowdculture philosophy, instead you’d identify a specific crowdculture that is a good fit for your organization and focus on them.

So back to the crowdculture examples to see how this alignment works:

  • Pre-industrial food revival: Chipotle’s branding around local and non-industrial food sourcing
  • Lad culture: Axe body spray’s over-the-top ads of bikini-clad “ideal” women chasing after men
  • Body-positive culture: Dove’s “Real Beauty” campaign focused on emphasizing that women are beautiful in their natural form (and, for fun, Dove has the same parent company as Axe)

There’s a lot more to identifying, aligning and maintaining this type of marketing strategy and Holt goes into some details in the article along with having a book on the subject, How Brands Become Icons: The Principles of Cultural Branding.

Is this the correct strategy moving forward? That’s yet to be seen. What is clear is, the “If you create good branded content, they will come,” strategy isn’t working.

Sometimes it makes sense to make fun of your brand

Wearing a t-shirt that reads "Cornflake U"
Cornflake U t-shirt

A few years ago, when I was working as the Director of Public Information and Marketing at Kellogg Community College, a fellow employee who had an interest in marketing came to me with a question about a particular t-shirt being sold in the bookstore. The t-shirt read “Cornflake University” and was a spoof on the Kellogg part of our name. He was concerned that it violated our branding standards and made fun of the school. He wanted my opinion.


I’m a huge champion of branding and consistency (see Addressing the question: Why branding is important), but there’s a part of “the brand” that he wasn’t considering; the brand “personality.” Our brand had a lot of personality characteristics, including personable, approachable, and fun. Considering that, we both agreed that the shirts really didn’t violate our brand, they enhanced it.


To this day, one of the most popular items in the bookstore is the “Cornflake U” shirts. I wear mine proudly.

Should churches stick to the “brand” of their denomination?

A photo of a United Methodist Church with the United Methodist cross logo prominently displayed
Barrackville United Methodist Church. Photo by Esther Damiani. Creative Commons BY SA license.


The United Methodist Church (of which I’m a member of), has a very distinctive logo that is easily recognized as that of the church; it’s a cross with two flames intersecting it. The logo and brand is pretty well-known, and yet, a large number of churches opt not to use the logo as their own.  This is a huge mistake.


Why it’s a mistake to not use the denomination’s brand

When making a large decision, such as where to attend church, there is a tremendous amount of research involved. One of the ways to shortcut this is using brand knowledge. Think back to your last car purchase; there were probably brands you considered or didn’t consider based on your brand knowledge. This shortcut allowed you to make a decision in less time and with less research.


There are a wide variety of churches available now and it takes a tremendous amount of work by the individual to be able to sort through what each church stands for, believes, etc. When individuals see the United Methodist logo on a church, they have a general idea of what it means to be a United Methodist and thus can make a quick decision as to whether or not to consider the church. Without knowing it’s a United Methodist Church, the individual may not consider the church because it requires too much effort on their part to research.


Similarly, the logo signifies a level of trust. The United Methodist church is a well-established denomination with safeguards against radical elements.  Just as you know every Panera adheres to basically the same food standards, every church within a denomination will have similar controls and consistency in terms of leadership, worship, beliefs, etc.


Yes, many United Methodist churches still have “United Methodist” in the name, but how trusting would you be if you saw a sign with “McDonalds” on it with some logo other than the golden arches? Would you be skeptical? I argue not using the logo brings in some skepticism.


What’s lacking from the non-denomination logos

Think of the majority of church logos that you’ve seen that aren’t related to a particular denomination; a good number of them use images of their building as their logo.  I argue that this actually tells you LESS about the church than the denomination symbol.  A building tells you nothing about the church’s beliefs, the people that attend there, etc.


For those you that were raised singing “We Are the Church,” sing with me now…”The church is not a building….”


Similarly, a contemporary cross doesn’t tell you anything, other than it’s a Christian church.


Why aren’t the churches using the denomination logos?

Here’s my stretch challenge on this topic: Why aren’t the churches using the denomination logos and marketing?


I think there are two answers to this:

  1. Lots of people like to dabble in marketing for fun.
  2. The local church representatives don’t believe the church brand is strong enough, conveys what it needs to.


The first one we can do very little about. Marketing is fun, that’s why so many of us like to do it for a living! Unfortunately, it requires a lot more thought than most people realize.


If the answer is the second one, that the brand isn’t seen as strong or representative, then we’ve got a tremendous amount of work to do to remedy that.

Thanks, John Kerfoot, for showing us how to laugh at ourselves

This post is dedicated to someone I’ve never met, but want to thank.

For those of you “non-Michiganders,” you might not be familiar with John Kerfoot, but he’s very popular in Michigan. He owns Tri-Foot productions and is an instructor at Wayne State University, but we all know him because he’s the guy that publishes the Not So Pure Michigan videos.

The Back Story

A couple years back, the Michigan Economic Development Corporation decided they needed to do something to increase tourism. So, they produced an advertising/branding campaign titled Pure Michigan. The campaign, including television ads, are very well received and seem to do a lot of good for tourism for the State of Michigan. But, to those of us in Michigan, the ads are a stretch because we see the good AND the bad.

Enter John Kerfoot

The videographer very quickly began creating spoofs of the ads (which, most advertisers will tell you, is the ultimate compliment) and they went viral. Not only that, but his videos (which, a warning, contain a lot of swearing) are primarily responsible, in my opinion, for inspiring a whole new, sarcastic meaning to the phrase “Pure Michigan.” Examples:

  • If you see something that is completely unattractive, like a garbage dump, it’s not uncommon in Michigan for someone to point to it and say “See that? Pure Michigan.”
  • During a presentation on Broken Windows that I gave at a military base, I asked a high-ranking  officer what he thought of a picture I’d taken of a horrible billboard ad in Michigan. He smiled and sarcastically said, “Pure Michigan.”

Recently, via Facebook, he announced that he’s retiring the series. Even though I now live in Texas, I’m deeply saddened by the news. I still love watching his videos and happily share them with my friends in Texas who want to see the “other” side of Michigan. He’s taught us “Michiganders” to laugh at ourselves and he’s provided a great example of advertising spoofing done well.

So, John, I just want to say, thanks for the laughs. I’m going to miss your Pure Michigan series, but look forward to your future work.

And now, my favorite Pure Michigan videos (again, a warning, they do contain profanity and could potentially be offensive to some):

Stealth Marketing: Where is the ethical line?

A Narrative

You wake up in the morning, check your Facebook page, and read how one of your friends discovered a really cool new protein bar that they love and you make a mental note to try it next time you hit the store. At the beach later in the day, a couple stops you and asks you to take a quick video of them with their cool new mini-camera so they can post it on YouTube. On the drive home, you turn on the radio and hear your favorite song and it makes you crank it up and sing along. When you get home, you relax on the couch and turn on your favorite news station only to hear that your favorite pro-athlete has a condition that may affect her future in the game. But, luckily, she’s found a treatment that is working and should be back to her competitions soon. Later that evening, you have a pre-dinner drink and meet a very attractive woman. She invites you outside for a smoke and then offers you a cigarette from her pack. Later, at the club, you wander into the bathroom and silently curse your fellow clubbers because the bathroom floor is strewn with energy drink cans they were too lazy to throw away.

What you don’t realize is:

  • Your friend on Facebook is a pusher, paid by the protein bar company in free bars to post positive comments on his social media sites.
  • The couple at the beach were paid actors who asked you to take the video so you would willingly try out the technology of a camera that was just introduced.
  • Your favorite pop song included lyrics about a particular brand of clothing, which the pop star was paid to insert into her song.
  • The athlete really does have a medical condition and the medicine they are promoting did help them, but they are talking about it because they are being paid by the drug company to do so.
  • The very attractive woman was an actress paid by the cigarette brand she offered you to get you to try the cigarette (writers note: I don’t endorse smoking at all).
  • The energy drink cans were purposely thrown on the club bathroom floor by paid promoters to make you think people at the club are drinking them a lot.

Think the above doesn’t happen? Think again. This is the world of stealth marketing and its use by major companies is growing very rapidly as you, the consumer, learn to tune-out traditional media.

Is it ethical?

Stealth marketing raises a lot of ethical issues about advertising integrity and consumer groups are beginning to fight back against, what they consider, subliminal advertising. But the question is, where is that line? Is it ok to spread false rumors about a movie to increase ticket sales (Blair Witch Project)? Is it ok to pay actresses to go to popular bars and request only certain brands in a noticeable way in a crowd to try to influence the other bar patrons?

Are we really to a point where we have to ask women and men at the bar if they are paid promoters? Photo from Flickr: Parker Michael Knight

A potential solution

I don’t really have an answer, but I do have a thought: One option is to apply the reasonable man standard used to determine most advertising deception cases and apply it to stealth marketing. Using this methodology, a stealth marketing campaign would be deemed as going too far if a reasonable man (woman) would be upset if they found out about the marketing effort. So, for example, would a reasonable man be upset to find out an energy drink company had strewn cans on a club floor purposefully? Probably not. Would a reasonable man be upset to find out the pretty woman who had pretended to be interested in him was just trying to get him to try a cigarette? Yes, I think so.

That’s not to say using the reasonable man standard barometer doesn’t have its issues. Consumers may not understand the larger impact and thus not get upset or it may be difficult to determine if or how upset a reasonable man would get. But, I believe it’s better than what we have now, which is nothing except self-regulation. And, if the narrative above scares you as much as it does me, then you’ll agree that something needs to be done.

Sometimes, marketing is just plain fun

Call it a measure of marketing effectiveness or hijacking if you will, but sometimes, marketing is just plain fun.

For the last year and a half at the college I work for, we’ve been in the process of reaccreditation through the Higher Learning Commission. As part of that process, a marketing committee I co-chaired worked on a campaign to ensure that every employee knew the college’s mission statement. We did a lot of wacky and fun things, but the latest prank about our mission statement came from one of the college’s Academic Advisors, Emily, who wanted to do one last fun thing before she retired. So, she asked one of our fellow employees to create a dance song with the words from our mission statement, got a group of us on-board, and pulled off this surprise dance at our Interim Session.

Did it help us with our overall goal of the employees knowing the mission statement? Probably. But in reality, for her and us, it was just a fun time. So, thank you Emily!

I hope you enjoy the video below and that inspires you to have a little fun at your work this week. And, yes, the blonde dancing near the front is me.