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How to partner with your brand's biggest fans

How to partner with your brand's biggest fans Dan Sullivan

Back in May, Nutella pulled the rug out from under Sarah Rosso, creator of World Nutella Day, and her committed community of 50,000 grassroots participants. Without warning or previous conversation, Rosso received a cease and desist order from Ferrero SpA, the Italian owner of the hazelnut spread. Fans were predictably outraged, as the very object of their affection was breaking up their party. Those same fans turned their considerable passion from praising the brand to tearing it down across all social channels, and the backlash was significant.


Beyond Nutella, this incident serves as a reminder of the consequences brands face when they try to completely control their communities as a brand asset rather than recognize them as a passionate group of connected individuals who drive the conversation. When brands treat these individuals with respect, they have the power to greatly benefit the brand community through their influence.


In today's social media-driven world, customer-created movements are bound to take shape and play a greater role in molding brand perceptions. By seeking these opportunities out and recognizing the people driving them forward, marketers can help deepen the brand's message and plant seeds for new, powerful advocates. More and more, brands are depending on these customer-documented stories to keep the conversation alive.


Honoring community triumphs: The new CoverGirl


Research shows that shared moments from friends and family on social media -- whether a status posting, photo, review, or critique -- make a much deeper impression than what the brand says about itself. The strength of customer-created moments is in authenticity; these interactions cannot be bought, controlled, or choreographed.


CoverGirl, for example, honored a sincere, courageous member of its community last year. After learning about Talia Joy Castellano, a 13-year-old makeup blogger who spent half of her short life in treatment for aggressive cancer, the company made her the face of a major campaign. This budding makeup artist shared her tips and tricks with the community through video tutorials that continue to garner thousands of views. By recognizing Talia, CoverGirl conveyed that its mission goes beyond eye shadow and underscores its recognition that beauty also comes from within. This resonates strongly with a community of women barraged with constant messaging that there is one unattainable ideal of beauty; it is a powerful and unifying message.


Levi's gets personal: Customer Instagrams featured in Fall catalogue


There's no question that a brand's image is enlivened by its customer base: Ugg boots carry stronger appeal on the feet of trendy women than store window displays, and Old Spice sparked laughter when an 11-year-old electronics whiz rigged one of its deodorant sticks to play the "Rocky" theme song when opened. To keep the conversation fluid and exciting, brands have to encourage audience creativity in their own unique ways.


Levi's is one brand that gave its community members a jumping off point for self expression, encouraging customers to submit Instagram photos that they deemed representative of Levi's newest collection to fill its 2012 catalog. By encouraging audience members to share their adventures and values directly with the brand, Levi's developed a multi-dimensional message that will continue to evolve over time. Levi's made the correct assumption that its fans love Instagram, Levi's, and sharing personal imagery and stories. Easy and fun events that offer up opportunities for fan exposure make for successful online campaigns.


Nutella makes peace: The fan's role in driving resolutions


With social front and center, fans undoubtedly hold the power. Luckily, Nutella proved that through its most committed fans, there is hope for mending even the most historic corporate debacles. Ferrero's brand officials met with Rosso and explained that the action had been a routine brand defense order, and they were able to resolve the issue. Just as the community rallied around Rosso in anger towards the brand's initial action, fans joined her in returning support to Ferrero after the two entities reached a resolution. The holiday will be embraced by both company and community in 2014.


Like many brand advocates, Rosso holds the key to the hearts of tens of thousands who feel tied to Nutella; those who shared her passion. By working with the natural leaders and advocates, companies can better navigate the waters of public perception and response.


Every individual voice within a loyal advocate community is an invaluable endorsement. There's no faking authenticity, and as we become increasingly connected and oversaturated with content, we depend on those we trust to filter what we should pay attention to and what we should believe. Only by recognizing the importance of these individuals can true brand affinity be achieved.


Dan Sullivan is founder and CEO of Crowdly.


On Twitter? Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.

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