Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Corporate blogs can damage brands too

When I wrote this in 2006, corporate blogging wasn't new.  Nevertheless it still frequently failed to support the brand, and often just looked like bandwagon jumping.  There's no doubt brands have got a lot better; but the failure to try to see it from the consumer's point of view still makes blogs and facebook pages the frequently toe-curlingly embarrassing efforts they are...

Corporate blogs have come in for a lot of stick in recent weeks – the latest being the efforts of Wal-Mart to persuade us that they’re a nice bunch of people by sponsoring two journalists to drive an RV around America overnighting in the company’s car parks.

What caused this one to come unstuck was its disingenuous nature.  The blog neither revealed the backing of the company (through an organisation called Working Families for Wal-Mart), nor the professional status of the participants, and in doing so broke one of the basic rules of blogging – tell the truth.

Tell the truth.  It isn’t that hard.

This rule has emerged not because of the high ethical standards of bloggers, but because they’ve learned that given the vast resources of the collective blogosphere, they’re going to find you out.  So it’s ultimately pragmatism that keeps bloggers straight, and whilst you’ll find inaccurate statements in blogs, you’ll almost always find them challenged by readers and debated hotly.

So whilst the experiences of the Wal-Mart bloggers were real, the people they met and the things they did real, since it was based on a lie its credibility was fatally compromised.  It ended with the PR agency behind it, Edelman, apologising publicly amid derision online.

Most corporate blogs don’t attempt to fake it on such a scale – but they’re strangely unappetising nevertheless.  They’re one of those strange beasts that emerge from the internet from time to time – generally giving neither the real personal views of a commentator nor the official corporate statement.

They exist in an odd limbo between these states, and it’s perhaps this that makes them unsatisfying.
In the UK, the marketing team behind one popular beer have maintained a blog for just over a year now, talking about the brand, the events it sponsors and their work.  Full marks for effort, but as it attracts hardly any comment from real consumers you find yourself asking why they bother.  As a drinker of their brand I’m supremely uninterested in the fact that the marketing manager has ‘had his head in spreadsheets’ for the last few weeks – and as a marketer it looks like a clumsy attempt to put a human face to the brand.

Clumsy not least because amongst all the real-blokey chattiness, the corporate lawyers have left their footprints – imploring people who participate to avoid “ad hominen comments” (yes I had to look it up too).
Even without this, I’d question whether putting a human face on a brand like this is a good idea.  A brand is a complex set of expectations and associations – some of which we create through communications, and some which consumers construe for themselves based on their experience of consumption or contact.  

When we stick the marketing director’s face on it, it jars.  He looks like a perfectly nice bloke, but he’s not the brand.  He’s the workings behind it – the cogs we happily ignore.  When we watch a film, we know there’s a cameraman and the room is a set, but we suspend our disbelief to participate in the story.  If we were constantly reminded of their involvement, it’d get in the way.

Just as our enjoyment of a film depends on the invisibility of many of the prime movers behind it, the integrity of the personal picture we maintain of a brand isn’t enhanced by the thoughts of the marketing team on the pressures of international commitments on the domestic game.

So whilst telling the truth is crucial to successful blogging, sometimes it isn’t enough.  The blogosphere is a very literal, direct environment that doesn’t lend itself to the nuance of ‘pure’ branding.  When the blog can become part of the customer’s experience of the brand – by offering support, community and involvement – it’s both powerful and effective.  But if you set out to use it to supplement brand communications, it’s difficult to add real value for consumers, hard to control and often just the wrong tool for the job.

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