Branding in the age of social media

A decade ago, when Facebook was literally going places, brands thought of social media as a potential opportunity to cash in. It was heralded as the arrival of the golden age for brand companies. Creative agencies, technologists and data analysts were hired to put the brands on the digital world map and dig up whatever is fashionable and trendy in the current market. Unfortunately, they had nothing to show for their efforts and brands were left stranded with their failed campaigns. Say what?

Social media was supposed to be a game changer. The reasoning behind it was that companies then do not have to deal with the traditional media, and instead can directly forge a relationship with the consumers on social media. Create stories that connect with the people, that sells their vision and booms their business. However, the content worked the opposite of what was expected and made brands less significant. What went wrong?

To answer that question, we need to understand branding’s basic premise- breaking through culture. With the rise of various social media platforms, there is a digital culture in practice and a proportional rise in digital crowd, more popularly known as crowdculture. They have their own set of branding rules, they do not abide by the book, and completely own the fate of any technique or campaign. If we understand them, we can figure out alternatives to create a better content strategies that work on social media.

The history of branded content – From 70’s till the present.

Before we further discuss about branding in the digital era, let’s roll back the years, and talk about branding in the early 70’s, which makes for a very interesting read. To make their brands popular, companies used to abstract ideas from films and music. Ideas like short-story telling, jingles and cinematic features were used to captivate the audience. An example would be this popular jingle by Schlitz beer, which ends with their tagline

‘When you’re out of Schlitz, you’re out of beer’,


Other classic ads like Alka-Seltzer’s “I Can’t Believe I Ate the Whole Thing,” Frito-Lay’s “Frito Bandito,” Cherry blossom’s “Something special is coming your way,” and Parle G’s “Gabbar ki asli pasand” made their way into popular culture by amusing the audiences.



This early form of branded content worked well because there was such limited competition in the market. Since a handful of television networks and movie companies distributed content, consumer marketing companies could buy their way to success by paying to place their brands in this tightly controlled cultural arena. Also, unlike now, fans had limited access to their favorite entertainers. Thus, brands acted as intermediaries and made a good lasting impression in the minds of the consumers. For years, we were used to seeing popular fast food chains and automobile brands sponsor movies, TV shows or even sports.

However, with the rise of new technologies came the DVR and then, the Internet. Fame just couldn’t be bought easily anymore. Companies quickly realized what they were up against and thus to compete against it, mainstream directors were hired to produce their advertisements. They believed that if they could deliver Hollywood-level creative at internet speed, they could gather huge engaged audiences around their brands. Thus was born the great push toward branded content. But they faced competition not from the big media companies but from the crowd.

Emergence of crowdculture.

Cultural innovation in different sections of the society has been recurring theme with the flow of times – whether they are religious groups, social movements or distinctive art forms. However, their geographical location, combined with a lack of opportunities to promote their work, dithered them from being popular around the globe. Companies, therefore, acted as intermediaries to bridge that gap and took these ideas to introduce them in the market. Social media changed it all.

Social media brought together the communities from all around the world. People collaborated to exchange their cultural ideas online with great intensity and pace, irrespective of how remote their geographical location was. Douglas Holt, author of How Brands Become Icons: The Principles of Cultural Branding, explains this phenomena by dividing it into two sections

  1. Increase in subcultures.
  2. Innovative art worlds.

1. Increase in subcultures.

Back in the day, when there were no means of online communication, the earliest form of a crowdculture was people meeting up physically, and discussing various topics by quoting magazines, newspapers or whatever they watched on television. However, the availability of information is now not restricted to these three sources. As a result, we have online conversations on a plethora of topics like cappuccino, the new presidential reign, demonetization in India, European football, travelling, capitalism vs communism, the new IPhone, animes, conservation of animals, food etc. All of these are known as subcultures.

Social media has helped these subcultures to expand and has given people the liberty to express their honest opinions on any subject. Whether it’s Facebook, Twitter or Instagram, you can join any public conversation by simply clicking on it and commenting your opinion on the respective subject. With the rise of crowdculture, brands are now addressing a global audience, rather than a specific location.

2. Innovative art worlds.

Originality of an idea has always had its own significant value. However, there have been many a times in the past were ideas were plagiarized and repurposed as a new one, due to lack of originality or lazy work. That was before rise of social media.

Crowdculture has changed the world of art for the better, by increasing the number of participants and the speed and quality of their interactions. Anyone can be an entrepreneur on their own right by honing their skills online, fine-tuning their content and produce quality stuff. The advantage in this new way of creating content is that it gives instant data on the market’s reception of their ideas, study its feedback, and then re-work on them so that even better content can be posted next time. Such content is made keeping in mind the audience’s taste and the cost of producing it is absolutely cheap. Branded content couldn’t crack the code and thus, failed in front of these art-world crowdcultures.

Doom of branded content on YouTube.

In the past few years, YouTube has been a breeding place for new and exciting content for entertainers. Nowadays, movie trailers or a new single is first released on YouTube and then on traditional media. However, corporate brands haven’t made their presence felt yet. If you look at the list of YouTube’s top 500 channels, only 3 have made the cut. The rest of it is filled with musicians or entertainers you haven’t ever heard off.

Imagine this. You post barely edited videos with snarky commentary, intended to be comic in nature and end up racking close to 60 million subscribers and 16+ billion views for it! Sounds like a fun success story, right? This is exactly what PewDiePie did on YouTube.

And he is not the only one to make it big by creating content on YouTube. Gaming channels like Smosh games (7.1m subs), fitness channels like Scott Herman Fitness (1.6m subs) and traveling channels like Fun For Louis (1.9m subs) produce unique content which keeps their subscribers engaged with their videos, and most importantly, not get bored of it. On the other hand, a famous food chain brand like KFC has only 357k subs. PewDiePie is 200 times as popular, for a very small fraction of the cost.

The simple conclusion one can deduce from this is brands don’t understand YouTube. Consumers have little interest in their content. Most view it as clutter i.e brand spam. Upon realizing this, Facebook began charging companies to get “sponsored” content into the feeds of people who liked their pages, the ‘supposed’ fans.

As Douglas Holt points out, the problem brand companies are facing is structural, not creative. They can execute complex marketing programs across multiple markets around the world but run out of ideas and fail miserably when it comes to cultural innovation.

The changing mindset of brand sponsorship.

Performers, athletes, sports teams, films, television programs, and video games are hugely popular on social media. The music scene on YouTube is enormous, with musicians like Rihanna, One Direction, Katy Perry, Eminem, Justin Bieber, and Taylor Swift have built massive audiences. Fans are always on the lookout for tweets of sports stars like Cristiano Ronaldo, LeBron James, Neymar, and Roger Federer, and of teams such as Manchester United, Real Madrid, Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors. The fan following is pretty much the same on Instagram.

The engagement that these entertainers, teams or sports stars get is much higher than the companies and their branded goods. And why not? It is much more fun interacting with the twitter account of your favorite sports team rather than interacting with a brand of a rental car or aerated drinks.

Brands cannot offer the entertainment of a Messi vs Ronaldo debate. They cannot post match pictures of players in the locker room or post match victory celebrations. Sponsors are slowly inclining towards entertainers than brand companies.

The need for Cultural branding

With the rise of crowdculture diminishing the significance of branded content, an alternative approach to tackle it is cultural branding. To understand it better, let’s discuss the case of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream.

Launched in the late 1970s with no capital, no new technologies and no product innovation, their sales increased from $180,000 in 1979 to $58 million in 1989 and to $237 million in 1999. Eventually, Unilever bought them for $326 million. Their success is entirely attributed to cultural branding. They positioned themselves as an ideological counterpoint to the rise of the conservative Reagan era. At a time when there was tension developing in America between liberals and conservatives, the brand used references from pre-industrial societies with counter-cultural initiatives which appealed to the liberal middle classes and became identified with the ideas of peace, love and harmony.

Competing for crowdcultures.

To brand effectively with social media, companies should target crowdcultures. Still a decade in, companies are still struggling to come up with a branding model that works in social media. Major social media platforms are calling the shorts, while the vast majority of brands are cultural mutes, despite investing billions. Companies need to focus completely towards the real locus of digital power—crowdcultures. They are completely responsible for the brand’s success or failure. Ben & Jerry’s ice cream succeeded not with a social media strategy but with products and communications that spoke to the liberals.

By switching to cultural branding, companies can be relevant on the digital front, which which will allow them to tap into the power of the crowdculture.

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