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May 08, 2009

Social Strategy for Exciting (and Boring) Brands

By Josh Bernoff

(From my Marketing News column.)

Cover April 30 There are two kinds of brands in the world. If you are a marketer, you know what I mean. There are brands people like to talk about, and brands they don’t.

Brands of the first kind – the brands that marketing thinker Rohit Bhargava calls “talkable” – are uncommon. Apple’s iPhone is a talkable brand. So is Harley-Davidson. If you market a talkable brand, you have the luxury of tapping into customers who love you, but you’ll have to be careful – those customers have already decided what the brand stands for, and woe unto you if you go against their wishes.

Brands that people don’t like to talk about – I’ll call them “boring” brands – are everywhere. If, like most marketers, you market a boring brand, then you’re really earning your living as a marketer. That’s because you are trying to get people interested in something they don’t really care about.

I’ve been analyzing social strategies for both kinds of brands, and they form an interesting contrast.


Favorite brands Let’s start with the talkable brands. In a recent survey [Forrester report "The Social Tools Consumers Want From Their Favorite Brands"], we asked online consumers whether they’d like to interact with various forms of social application with their favorite brands. Forty-two percent said they would, but the types of interactions they preferred were varied. About one in four consumers would interact with these brands in a discussion forum, one in five would watch videos, and one in six would be interested in connecting with them through a social network profile, like a Facebook page. Only 12% want to read a blog about the brand, which reinforced the earlier research we’d done, showing that blogs are the least trusted form of communication between companies and customers.

What does this mean for the marketer? It means connecting with those enthusiasts is going to be more than a full-time job. First, examine the applications they’ve already set up on their own – their discussion forums, their blogs, their own videos and social network groups. Figure out what you want to join up with, and what you want to create. And you’ll have to create multiple applications, because as this research shows, your customers don’t agree with each other about where they’d prefer to connect with you.

As a result, you’ll probably have make sure they all to those social network profiles, communities, and videos connect with one another, and with the sites your fans already have. We recently worked with a B2B company that faces this exact problem – its customers use its products, love them, and have already set up user groups online. The good news: whatever the company does, it will have active participation. The challenge is not messing up the relationships already percolating in the existing user group.

The boring brands have different problem, but social applications can help them, too. [Forrester Report: "Social Technology Strategies for 'Boring' Consumer Brands".] The key with boring brands is to get people talking about their problems, since they won’t talk about your brand. In advertising, you can force messages on people watching other things. In a social context, this fails miserably.

Applications that talk about customers problems create “borrowed relevance,” since you generate talk they care about, then make yourself a part of it. American Express (credit cards are boring, face it) created the Members’ Project, a contest to choose deserving charities, since it realized that charity would generate more passion than credit cards. And in perhaps the most dramatic example, Procter & Gamble knew girls wouldn’t talk about tampons, but would talk about music, cliques, and school, so it created beinggirl.com as a vehicle to deliver (very quietly) the occasional feminine care products message.

Borrowed relevance is a versatile strategy. Liberty Mutual (in another boring category, insurance) wrapped itself in relevance by creating The Responsibility Project, a community about moral decisions. Johnson & Johnson built a Facebook page for mothers of ADHD kids – because, as with all medications, its ADHD drug is boring but its sufferers generate interesting problems. Doritos invited its customers to make ads in the 2007 Superbowl, since an ad contest is more exciting – and more social – than a corn chip.

Regardless of whether your brand is talkable or boring, as you launch these social applications, you’ll generate something very valuable – people who care about your brand, or at least the problems it solves. I’ve begun to ask brand marketers a question: who are your most engaged customers? I don’t want an answer like “women 25 to 34 with at least one child.” I want an answer like “Emily DiBernardo, she lives in Kansas and she just can’t stop talking about us.” With social applications, you’ll find Emily.

If your brand is talkable, your social efforts will surface the brand enthusiasts who have the most influence. If it’s boring, your social applications will help you find your rare but valuable brand enthusiasts, or even generate a few. Pay attention to these people. Because as advertising clutter rises and word of mouth becomes more important, they’re about to become some of your most important corporate assets.


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Great points Josh. I think what we need to remember is regardless whether or not we have an exciting or a boring brand and whether it's B2B or B2C, you are dealing with people and people are social and exciting. That's where our focus needs to lie. I think the Doritos is an excellent example of focusing on the people and not the boring product of corn chips.

Maria Reyes-McDavis

I agree with "EH" above, while there are certain difficulties a boring brand has, as well as an exciting "talkable" brand -- the key point will always come down to focusing on the people you'd like to engage with the brand. Losing sight of this necessity, can not be repaired by any amount of technology or application use.

Stefano Maggi

Referring to "Objectives" in the POST methodology, it looks like people want Exciting brands to talk and want boring brands to listen. Looks like energizing, embracing and support are suitable for both. I like this connection:
you're boring = listen
you're exciting = talk.
Brands are like people. And viceversa.

Josh Bernoff

@Stefano Actually, exciting brands are best at energizing since they have fans.

Boring brands can do any of the objectives, they just can't do it by talking about themselves.

Paul Conner

Referring to Stefano's comment, "Brands are like people," I can't agree more. In fact, I would go further and say that a brand IS a person. It's how people personify the more physical attributes of a product - they "brand" it. And when we (as consumers) personify a product, we automatically develop a "feeling" for it, call it bored or excited or any number of other feelings we can have about people. Our behavior is governed by our feelings, so why not be more specific about how you want people to "feel" about your product? Excited is one way. But what about secure? Fun? Cared for? Grateful? Amazed? Our vast range of feelings gives products/brands lots of opportunities to emotionally differentiate.

Vijay Rayapati

The key message is engagement with consumers is what differentiates a boring brand from great brand.While social media is a new platform to facilitate this engagement model, I am sure there are multiple other ways where boring brands can engage with their consumers.

Matt Bamford-Bowes

Great examples. I think American Express can play a dual role though 1) through its Members' Projects 2) through a more high brow connection to its Centurion/Black card. An exclusive social network for these people could go way beyond what ASmallWorld and LinkedIn do. Interestingly enough, the Centurion card was launched in the 90s born out of rumours which surfaced in the 80s about an exclusive black card. A nice way to dovetail a social media story don't you think?


I'm a social media manager for a software company, and run into obstacles trying to generate discussion all the time. We have a very specific audience, and, as we all know, software is NOT sexy.

However, I'm extremely fortunate in that I can use our toolset to find data about hot topics (we build social media monitoring software). I've been able to build a great community around the benefits of our stuff vs. shoving the bells and whistles down our audience's throats.

I also agree that it's extremely important to know who your evangelists are. One of our biggest fans isn't even a client - he just likes our blog and finds value in the technology.

Gianluigi Cuccureddu

Good article.

With boring brands it is listening to your target audience and understand what the problem is that they want to have solved. If a boring Brand engages subtle without the disruptive/shouting way of pushing advertorials, it could be a huge source of potential customers and above all, a huge source of market intelligence.

I guess there are more boring brands (who suffice in commodities and usual things) than talkable brands?

Best regards,
Gianluigi Cuccureddu


I'm a japanese reader of your Book. I'm a website produser working for phamaceutical company. I'm very glad of you will come to Japan for Ad:tech.

Teen Surveyor

I like the idea of “borrowed relevance” it gives the consumer something beside the product to concentrate on, because indeed some things are boring but a necessity.

I didn't know Johnson & Johnson did a FB page on ADHD, it seems kind of odd to me since J&J markets baby products ... but whatever. I am familiar with the P&G blog for teen girls, that is actually a brilliant strategy and I highly commend them on it.

Dan Schrementi

Great post. I am a marketer in the video game space and we have such tremendously active and loyal social community. It inspired me to write a blog about it. http://bit.ly/jcDMr

Social Steve

You might find something interesting points on "Brands in the Age of Social Media" at http://socialsteve.wordpress.com/2009/06/23/brands-in-the-age-of-social-media/

Social Steve

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