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Branding the Elephant

Russell Shaw
Branding the Elephant Russell Shaw

Last month, we spent time visiting the sites of bloggers credentialed to cover the Democratic convention -- not to analyze the rhetoric and political arguments, but to analyze the bloggers' efforts to capitalize on the perceived demographics of the Kerry-Edwards ticket. With the Republican convention set to begin next week, we're giving equal time.
Comparing the marketing and advertising by the mostly Republican-sympathetic bloggers assigned to cover the Republican National Convention (RNC) to their rivals on the Democratic side is a vicarious experience. On one hand, the business model seems almost identical. Tap into core constituencies, and then either sell advertising or products that would be considered amenable to core audiences.

On the other hand, the tone of advertising and products heralded on the GOP blogs is almost entirely different from the Democratic-leaning Web logs. There are no links to Amazon.com book pages that beat up Kansans for voting conservative nor any coffee cups for sale that by thinly disguised inference make fun of Saddam Hussein and the successful effort on the part of the Bush administration to remove him from power.

Contributions and commentary

Instead of cartoonish depictions of a Saddam whose weapons of mass destruction have not yet been located, a number of RNC-credentialed blogs carry a "Coalition of the Willing" ad. On such credentialed blogs as Dean's World, originally created to combat one-time Democratic front-runner Howard Dean, British Prime Minister Tony Blair is exalted.

The notice, which features the smiling face of the steadfast U.S. ally Tony Blair, thanks the nation he leads for answering the call "when the call came to stand up and be counted." The ad does not link to a specific product, but to a Web site called ThankYouTony. In turn, ThankYouTony has a link to the main campaign site for President Bush, which has a link from where you can make a campaign contribution.

The net effect of the Blair ad, then, is to harness the good will that many partisans feel toward the British leader, and then ultimately, to link to a fund-raising mechanism for the candidate who feels grateful for Blair's help.

What's even more telling on the Dean's World site, as well as a few others, is the presence of several keyword-driven, Google AdWords/Google Syndication ads. It should come as no surprise that the specific Google Syndication ads on Dean's World, and several other RNC-credentialed Blogs, are at least somewhat in sync with the perceived sentiments of the readership. Here are two examples of Google Syndication ads currently up on several of these Blogs:

  • "War Iraq" is actually a link that routes through Internet advertising agency DoubleClick and on to a sign-up page for The Wall Street Journal Online. On its editorial pages, the newspaper has been a steadfast supporter of the Bush administration and the war in Iraq.

  • "Conservative and Anti-War?" offers a direct link to the Web site of American Conservative, a publication whose ideology is indicated by its name.

Self promotion -- in more ways than one

Republicans don't only fight wars, though. They date. For those romantically unattached Bush partisans who presumably are tired of meeting "liberals" via dating sites such as Match.com, there's Conservative Match.

The pitch, as shown in ads on such RNC-credentialed Blogs as Blogs For Bush and HughHewitt.com -- like most other memorable advertising tag lines, this one is a zinger -- "Stop Dating Liberals!!"

The body copy of the ad is both direct and inviting, and speaks directly to the target audience: "Are you tired of arguing about politics on your dates? Do you get sick of hearing your boyfriend or girlfriend bash President Bush? Now there is hope! Join the ConservativeMatch.com community and find thousands of conservative singles just like you."

When he or she clicks on the ad, the user is quickly routed through the servers of advertising agency Blogads.com. As soon as that Web address appears, it quickly redirects to a sign-up page on ConservativeMatch.com.

A nationally syndicated talk show host heard in some 60 markets, Hewitt also uses his blog for self-promotion. On his blog, there is an ad for Hewitt's book "If It's Not Close, They Can't Cheat" -- a reference to the tight 2000 Presidential election and the vote-count controversies that followed. The body copy of the ad refers to "the dire consequences of a John Kerry victory." The ad itself is clickable to Blogads.com, and then, in the blink of an eye, to a book order page on Amazon.com. The work, which stood at No. 49 on the Amazon.com best sellers list a few days before the RNC, is published by Nelson Books, an imprint of conservative and religious book publisher Thomas Nelson, Inc.

Also in the publication realm, Hewitt's Blog offers a link to a special subscription sign-up page on the Web site of The Weekly Standard, a conservative newsmagazine. The link (weeklystandard.com/hugh) offers 48 issues for $39. Routed through Blogads, The Weekly Standard sign-up page pays tribute to "Hugh." The body copy notes that the magazine's publisher and two top editors are frequent guests on Hewitt's radio show.

Crushing the competition

If political advertising is often more uncivil than commercial advertising, this dynamic plays out in the language and supported branding materials used to characterize competitors. For Republicans, of course, that competitive dynamic is personified by Democratic Presidential nominee John Kerry. Senator Kerry is seen by some as a flip-flopper, a perception directly channeled by Hewitt into "John Kerry Flip-Flops."

When clicked, the ad routes through Blogads and then to a Web site called The Right Stuff: Comedy For Real Americans. The page features two $17.95 sandals, each adorned with what the site views as contradictory statements uttered by Kerry throughout his political career. The same page also catalogs a series of bumper stickers whose sentiments are unequivocal: "Terrorists Agree: Kerry-Edwards" sets the tone.

Accusations of untrustworthiness in the political marketing sphere can be compared to accusations of unreliability in product marketing. Yet in politics, the opportunity exists for the message to be far more personal.

The perception that Kerry is untrustworthy is echoed on Blogs For Bush. An ad tagged "Anti-Kerry Bumper Sticker" appears for a sticker that says "Don't trust John Kerry with your money? You're not alone." The ad goes on to say that Kerry's wife -- ketchup heiress Teresa Heinz Kerry -- "wouldn't marry him without a prenup," an arrangement that in the view of some partisans, makes a Kerry-led administration risky management of the U.S. government's finances. When clicked, the Web surfer reaches LibertyOutlet.com, a site that brands itself as one that offers "politically conservative, pro-gun T-Shirts, Mugs, Mousepads and Bumper Stickers.

Straw men and bogeymen have long been used in product advertising campaigns. In this year's Presidential campaign, an equivalent can be seen in the "John Kerry For President of France" tee-shirt ad posted on Blogs For Bush. Once again, Blogads is the conduit, this time to self-avowed "pro-American apparel" site CasualConservative.com.

After the Republican National Convention ends and the Labor Day weekend concludes, the Presidential campaign will be underway in full force. Tag-lines, slogans, ad copy and alliances will be front and center, and will be instructional to all marketers who try to sell image, ideas and services. We'll be watching and analyzing for you.

Embrace new technologies quickly -- if you think about them too long, your business could be dead

Richard Cullen is the former general manager at VISA Europe and CEO of Payment Service Development Ltd. Richard says about social media, "Everybody is doing it, so if you're not, you're going to be left behind."

Recently retired from VISA and a veteran in the banking world, he reminds us about the change of speed at which information travels. When he started his career at VISA, the communication landscape was not like it is today, and the rate of change at which information travels is getting faster and faster: "Five years ago people thought Twitter was a bunch of bird spotters. Today, if you're not on Twitter and understand it, your business could be dead while you're thinking about it. Embrace media...and all the media available to you."

Cullen explains that business has always been about successful differentiation from other companies and being technologically ahead of the competition: Until 1958, no one had been able to create a working credit card reader that was integrated with different banks and accepted by a large number of merchants. VISA's success was due to the creation of this card reader combined with a leadership that wasn't afraid to be different. This allowed the organization to keep a double-digit growth rate even through a few recessions. Cullen suggests you ask yourself, "What makes you different from your competitors who haven't yet woken up to new technologies and media?" However, he also warns us, "If you don't get on these new media, your competitors will...and the sooner people do it, the sooner the positive effects will come through for them."

As to the question of whether SnD should have a place at the board level, Cullen strongly believes that it does. He believes that the only way to make it happen is to have a champion on the board. In his view, it should really be everyone's responsibility. However, based on his long experience as general manager at VISA Europe, he insists that there must be a champion for SnD in general, because "governments are following it, and if they do, you can be sure every big company must be part of it." Cullen says that any board member should have the stature to be this champion, but even suggests that it may simply fall under the CEO to ensure all directors take responsibility for this critical area.

It's not about joining "social media" but about becoming a "social business"

Delphine Remy-Boutang was the world wide social media director at IBM and also the founder of a digital consulting agency. Remy-Boutang says that nowadays, every business is "social;" however, despite expectations from her title, Remy-Boutang says that it's not only about social media. The importance nowadays is to become a "social business," which she explains as "integrating social technology in critical business processes." This means not just marketing, but integrating social technology into all aspects of the business, of which she gives five examples:

  • In HR, it is about engaging the right people, motivating and empowering employees, and fostering success through learning.

  • In communication and marketing, it is about more effectively targeting your customers, driving traffic to your website, and building your brand.

  • In sales, it is about building better relations and connecting with more clients.

  • In customer service, it is about anticipating problems, responding faster, and enabling self-help from customers.

  • In research and development, it is about innovating faster and unlocking new ideas.

IBM has been one of the pioneers in the company integration of SnD since its 1997 strategic initiative of becoming an "e-business." Today, with more than 470,000 employees worldwide, who are all encouraged to be online and on SnD platforms, IBM is truly a social business. But with so many people talking freely on these social platforms, it would be irresponsible not to have governance and monitoring of these interactions, and Remy-Boutang warns us that "it cannot be owned by marketing or communication because it is every department's business."

Remy-Boutang believes that SnD responsibilities need to be owned by a new position that doesn't yet exist because it is not part of a company's genetics yet: "It is about creating a cultural change where power is no longer in the hands of the company but in the hands of employees and customers." She continues by saying that "it is not just about being on Twitter or Facebook: Companies must go from being product centric to being people centric."

The reason Remy-Boutang doesn't like titles like "community manager" is because after 14 years of experience in leading the IBMers' community, she can say with confidence that "the community manages you, and not the other way around." Her suggested title for this new position is "chief listening officer" because it is all about listening to the conversation within, and outside of, the company. She also gives us a peek into the future by saying that eventually, there may be a need for more specialized positions like chief Facebook officer or chief YouTube officer as businesses realize the benefits of becoming even more social.

Not all businesses want to be "social," but all businesses want to "innovate"

Minter Dial is the former managing director of a L'Oreal brand and founder of a digital innovation agency. Dial believes that the position needed on the board is not about "social media" but about "digital innovation," because, he explains, "for a company like Coca-Cola, 'social' may be extremely important, but it won't necessarily be the case for every company."

Dial explains that "social media is a tool which complements ongoing business strategy because it has the uncanny ability to find a use in pretty much any industry, any function, any role, any project." He is a strong advocate of social media and believes that it cannot be avoided: Every department needs to use it and eventually will. When asked about the role of SnD at the board level, he feels a bit more reserved: "The issue with social media by itself is that the position cannot possibly warrant a high level executive, especially if it were related to social media marketing." Dial's other concern is about having a title with the word "media," which automatically spins the role toward communication and marketing, which is only one aspect of these powerful tools.

Dial talks about the need for a transversal role, as opposed to the CMO, because the use of SnD strategies is necessary across all departments. It is for this reason that for Dial, the strategic position needed at the board level is of a "digital innovation officer" who reports directly to the CEO.

Dial explains that "digital" is a lot broader than "social:" Digital includes mobile, but also CRM and e-commerce, internal e-learning tools, knowledge management, and research and development. "Social media" therefore becomes part of the "digital" equation, but is not enough on its own. Dial explains that the "orientation for this role would be to spearhead innovation via all things digital." In his eyes, the role has a strong focus on "transformation and innovation" and therefore requires a small team that can spark innovation throughout all layers of the company.

He concludes by describing "four major responsibilities under this DIO, which might be broken down as follows: digital marketing, customer service, research and customer insights, human resources." For Dial, it means that the teams may need to be given changing objectives to improve different areas of the business year over year: It could start its first year looking at customer service, before moving on to improve the sales process in year two, and possibly move to enhancing the internal knowledge management in year three before looking for other areas to focus on.

If SnD marketing becomes C-level, the position must complement the CEO's overall strategy

Frederic Abella is the collaboration director at Societe Generale (the world's 16th largest bank). Abella tells us that "social media and digital" is today what "information system and IT" was 20 years ago. In the same way as IS and IT started under the COO, it eventually found its place on the board because its importance in the survival and success of companies kept growing.

Abella says, "The role is now of transformation, but within 10 years, SnD technologies will be fully integrated with all aspects of the business and therefore the nature of the role will change." For Abella, it is crucial that "digital" has a place on the board because, as its importance is growing in the outside world, it must grow accordingly within all companies.

Abella divides this new role into three spheres: what happens within the company, what happens within the company's ecosystem (i.e., clients and providers), and what happens within the public domain. Abella loves the social aspect of the digital world but says it's important to clarify the role of this position at the board level: "At first, it's not about being social; the purpose of this new role is to help the CEO reach her/his business objectives. This is achieved by helping every employee do their job better and more easily, and, as a result of people seeing better business results and their work done faster, people will have better social interactions, of which the company will reap further indirect benefits when it happens."

According to Abella, the key component of this role has to be about helping the business grow: It is great to say "people will become more social," but if there is no tangible business benefit, it is a poor investment of time and money. This role must help increase sales, improve the speed of operations, and/or decrease costs. This is the reason why this role is both strategic and operational: Business results will be seen through creating better exchange between departments and coordinating the use of the different digital tools available, whether it is for the business operations that have external focus (e.g., marketing, communication, sales, and branding) or internal focus (knowledge management, human resources, and better business practices).

Abella continues by explaining that the title chosen for this position will have a deep effect on the results achieved because it will slant the focus in different directions. If the title includes "media," "listening," or "community," the role will invariably focus on communication and marketing. If the title includes "innovation," the focus will be on bringing new ideas and processes. It is therefore up to the CMO or whatever the title of the current stake-holder, to help the CEO understand and decide the best strategy to grow the business. This is the reason why Abella concludes that "this is why my favorite title may be chief digital officer because it has the broadest scope."

Abella reminds us that "this is essentially a transformative role: If the CEO is a true believer, the best title may even be 'chief transformation/disruption officer,' because this position is really about transforming your company to become a truly digital and social business."

The role of SnD at the board level

Tomorrow's best CEOs will live SnD. Why? Because people who understand social media are people-oriented individuals, and those who understand digital are technology driven. The SnD-oriented CEO will  interface with others inside and outside the company and know that selling is not moving goods or supplying services; it is connecting with people, building communities, solving problems, and fulfilling needs. It is the convergence of people and technologies that will make 21st century businesses thrive, giving a great advantage to CMOs and CTOs when looking at CEO succession.

Whether you believe that the most important aspect of a successful business is people or innovation, everyone knows you must be ahead of your competition to survive and thrive. SnD has become as important to our personal and business lives as computers and emails did 20 years ago. Does your current SnD strategy enhance your business, help it grow and stay ahead of your competition, or do you do it because you feel you have to? More importantly, is your CEO and your board planning for the future by embracing the realities and benefits of being an SnD organization?

SnD has become an important point of differentiation and strategic value to business and will only increase. If SnD hasn't already found a place on your board, whether under an already existing position or through a new role, you may want to start packing your bags. After reading this article, we surely hope that SnD will become a bigger priority, because the sooner it finds a place on your C-team and on your board, the sooner your company gets to experience its benefits.

Do you agree? Does SnD merit a place in the C-suites of the 21st century?

Noam Kostucki is the co-founder of Redefine. The article's co-author is Ken Evans.

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"Attractive young woman standing and juggling with social network icons" image via Shutterstock.


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