If you’re a child of the 1980’s, you probably remember this iconic shampoo commercial:

Admit it. You repeated the mantra of “I told two friends, and they told two friends, and so on, and so on …” in many settings. Heather loved her shampoo, and there was probably something you loved just as much (or a story you couldn’t wait to share) that fit the bill.

I look back on this with nostalgia for the straightforwardness of the shampoo’s implied “ask” for sharing the message, but also as a self-admitted brand junkie. Thinking about it recently caused me to pause, and examine what the world of brand management meant back then, and what it means now. My original, off-the-cuff thought process was to think about how much easier it was back then, and how much more control brand managers had over their brands.

Then I stopped that train of thought, and admitted something to myself that may make brand managers around the globe cringe. Are we just kidding ourselves that we can actually MANAGE a brand? Please, take a visit inside my brain for this fun-filled ride ….

Have Brands Ever Been Manageable?

Early in my career, I learned that magical lesson that all of us brand junkies live by:

Your brand isn’t what you say it is. It’s what your audience says it is.

 Yes, Heather was telling her two friends, who told two friends, and so on, and so on… But what exactly was she saying when she was spreading the word? Yes, brand managers have control (to some extent) of the messages we broadcast to our audiences. But as the lesson above demonstrates, it’s not about what or who we say we are. Our audience’s perception relies on how they’re experiencing the brand, and there are many touch points involved in this. What stories are the interactions at those touch points telling your audience? That’s what your brand will become.

In our example of Heather, perhaps she was telling her friends that the shampoo made her hair feel good, but the bottle was slippery and hard to open, or the smell wasn’t quite what she expected. Or maybe it costs just a little more than she’d like to pay. And what about the sales clerk’s lack of knowledge when she was at the store deciding which shampoo to buy? Her experience in all of these areas, not the product itself or the marketing messages she’d heard, shaped the story that she shared with her two friends.

Does this sound manageable? OK, I will concede, there are many things that brand managers can do to anticipate and direct these kinds of things to maintain the integrity of the brand. My point is that even back in the days of limited outlets for broadcasting information, 100% control has never been possible.

It’s 2018. Have We Lost or Gained Control of our Brands?

Today, there are many more people telling their “friends” what they think of your brand in a very public way to a lot more than two people at a time. (Just imagine how many people Heather could have told about her shampoo today!) Many would like to argue that with so many voices and so much noise, we’ve lost our ability to truly manage our brands and the conversations around them. I’m not sure I buy into this. Follow me for just a moment, because here’s my theory:

  1. We’ve never really had 100% control of our brands, as I’ve outlined above.
  2. In the good old days, conversations were happening privately. We couldn’t listen, so we didn’t really know what many people were saying. (Let’s set the argument about market-research-can-tell-us-these-things aside. Not every brand on the planet does market research, and no one does it every day, everywhere.)
  3. We now have the ability to build communities of advocates for our brands.

As I mentioned before, the brand isn’t what you say it is, it’s what THEY say it is. It’s our job today to listen, inspire conversations, ask questions, and give the audience what they value most from us. You can manage that process, and influence what the audience feels, but you cannot control it.

And that’s OK. That shouldn’t be your objective.

Instead, focus on building an ongoing relationship, allowing people to get to know who you really are, and being open to hearing everyone – even your critics and naysayers. You’re humble and proud at the same time. You’re talking and listening in real-time dialogue. You’re addressing missteps while engaging your community. You’re acknowledging that everyone has a voice that’s important to the conversation. This process creates authenticity and shows the brand in a “one-of-us” framework.

Have you lost control of the brand in this environment? Far from it. What you’ve done is empowered legions of people to speak on your behalf, arming them with tools and experiences to broadcast your message in a way that’s real, from the heart, and unscripted. Let this happen, and your brand will shine through in ways you may never have imagined.