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Social, Not Stupid

A look at how brands are getting authenticity right and wrong on social media.

This post is part of our Big Ideas series, a column highlighting the innovative thinking and thought leadership at IIeX events around the world. Holly Collins will be speaking at IIeX Europe 2019 in Amsterdam. If you liked this article, you’ll LOVE IIeX Europe. Click here to learn more.


Customers, participants, audiences, or Friends, Romans, countrymen?

As a hobby writer, I always picture my audience when I’m putting a piece together. It makes sense. If you’re not writing for yourself, you’re writing for an audience. As a playwright, anticipating and understanding your potential audience is key to writing something they will enjoy watching, and will relate to. So, I spend a lot of time thinking about my audience – my customers, if you will.

I also spend a lot of time thinking about how brands communicate with their customers. In my professional life I work mostly with big brands, who have teams of people dedicated to making sure their brand message remains consistent across the board. There’s a level of professionalism, and sometimes sterility, in corporate communications that customers can find distant or off-putting – or even worse, insincere. This is quite safe, and brands are oftentimes correct to err on the side of caution.

It’s a difficult thing to get completely right, but when it happens it can be really satisfying to watch. The only thing I enjoy more than watching brands get it right, is watching them get it all wrong. The arena these crash-and-burn moments play out on? Social media. Of course.

Trust based on inauthenticity is not sustainable, and will be exposed when brands are ‘on’ 24/7

Trust is big business for small companies. As consumers trust large organisations less and less, many are looking to smaller, indie brands to spend their money with. This is especially true in non-essential items, that are more of a ‘treat’ purchase. These smaller brands can offer a level of personalisation, in product and services, that bigger brands cannot. They can also give customers a human face to put on the brand, through accessible videomaking and instant replies on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook comments.

Some brands win at this and are rewarded with something money can’t buy – a genuine fanbase. A great example of this is the comments section of Beauty Pie’s Instagram posts, where you can often see founder Marcia Kilgore replying directly to comments, reassuring on value, quality and future plans. She has won a strong group of advocates that simple brand warmth alone cannot through her personality and direct communication with customers. The brands who lose at this often lose in a spectacular, messy and public fashion, for one simple reason: lack of respect for the customer.

Even as recently as the last six months, we’ve had some corkers. While I do not believe that any industry is immune to this risk, the fashion and beauty industry seems to have been hit hard by this lately.

October saw the public meltdown of Brandon Truaxe, ex-CEO of boutique skincare brand Deciem, who posted a minute-long tirade online threatening to sue everyone from Estée Lauder to Brad Pitt after months of erratic behaviour, chronicled online. In November, Dolce & Gabbana cancelled a show in Shanghai after racist comments about Chinese customers surfaced from Stefano Gabbana’s personal social accounts. Both blamed hacking, and both were ridiculed for it.

The ugly truth about beautiful relationships

This fan-like relationship brands have with their consumers is based on the affection they have for the individuals they associate with the brand. When these individuals let them down too badly, consumers are more than happy to call them out on it, and even boycott the brand completely.

After a brand has managed to build a relationship with customers based on the fact they’re personable, relatable, nice people, that brand has to protect this characterisation. It’s easy for fanbase customers to turn their strong emotions about the brand from a positive to a negative, if the transgression is deemed to be bad enough. The thing Truaxe and Gabbana have in common is they think their customers are stupid – or at least, stupid enough. They capitalised on their personalities, and when they were found to be rotten, they were mobbed for it. It’s the reason that consumers have forgotten Mike Coupe of Sainsbury’s ‘We’re in the Money’ gaffe from April. Singing about wealth, while announcing a merger that could make Sainsbury’s £500m extra profit in an age of austerity – surely this is on par with Deciem and Dolce & Gabbana’s errors? Only if customers are buying into Coupe as an individual. Which they aren’t.

Kilgore really is best in class for using her own voice as her brand’s authentic voice. Her position as ‘your friend who is saving you money’ is consistently backed up by her online behaviour. She never speaks down to her customers, either current or potential, regardless of what they have to say about her brand or products.

What you want, baby I got it…

As researchers, we get to explain to brands what their customers are thinking, and how they want to be spoken to. The insight? Speak to them like they’re actual people! I can’t remember or even imagine a scenario whereby a customer will turn around and say they want to be insulted, or patronised, or greeted by a wall of automatic corporate responses from a brand.

The answer is not to always be ultra-personal. Of course not. It’s difficult to do right, can be catastrophic when it goes wrong, and won’t suit every brand positioning. We can learn lessons from the best and worst of these personable brand voices, and the universal lesson is to talk to customers, and indeed research participants like they are normal people. Which, of course, most of them are.

This attitude is as key for researchers as it is for the brands we work with. The more we take our respondents seriously, regardless of how much we agree with them or not, the better we can relate to them and their needs. One of the first things I learned as a writer was to not write characters you totally dislike. Even villains need a shred of humanity to be interesting. If you hate your characters, it’ll show in two-dimensional writing and a dull dichotomy of right and wrong. Not what we want from a brand voice in 2019.

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Holly Collins

Holly Collins

Research Analyst, Trinity McQueen Research