Why Can’t Brands Connect?

So brands are chomping at the bit to jump into Google+ ?

Understandable with all the hype, but we may be getting the cart before the horse. The truth is most brands-and most companies–are still struggling with the other platforms. Social media is still foreign to them, and most flail around like fish out of water (to use another animal analogy).

Marketers know this problem. The issue was raised again in a nicely written piece recently in Advertising Age. The author concludes with, “In a nutshell, they need to act less like brands and more like people.”

The problem

The problem is “brands” are not people, though they are made up of people. And in many ways a brand is the antithesis of a social-oriented business, mostly driven by processes and an insatiable need for “results” and ultimately profits.

Rather than reinvent, we’ve shoehorned social media into our corporate framework. We’re still doing everything the same, just in new channels, disguised as social media.

“Schedule 10 tweets this week” (and make them sound real).

“Focus on driving our XYZ corporate message in next week’s blog.”

Companies should know better, given their experiences with content. Many companies are amazed to find no one’s reading their marketing materials or white papers-and why should they? The old of way of companies producing content (think: 30 second commercials, press releases, clever one-liners) doesn’t work with social media.

Compare a typical fast-moving conversation on G+, Twitter or Facebook to your typical corporate marketing-speak or CEO speech. You get the point: fluid vs stiff, natural vs stilted, engaging vs boring.

I saw this first hand at Hewlett Packard, where as Editor in Chief I had to create new programs to train enterprise bloggers and drive social media activity. There were a lot of bright, talented people, but many struggled to blog and engage amid stiff corporate structures and processes, non-supportive managers and incentive systems and an obsession with measurement. Years of layoffs and poor morale didn’t help.

My boss was ignorant of social media but that didn’t stop her from aggressively pushing ahead: “We need to drive HP’s share of voice,” she’d say.

“First, we need a voice,” I’d argue.

Eventually it dawned on me-”social” is not in the corporation’s DNA. It’s all about left brain thinking, processes and systems, marketing speak and driving results. Fear drives much of the corporate activity-something Andy Grove, my former (Intel) CEO, captured back in the 1990s with his popular battle call for a generation of corporate worker bees: “Only the paranoid survive”.

This isn’t all bad-it’s what distinguishes our companies from other less efficient endeavors (government comes to mind) and has led to great innovations and brands over time. But trying to shoehorn in social media doesn’t work, like mixing oil and water. And as I look ahead, it’s clear to me companies will need to significantly change to adapt to a new environment-more dynamic, fluid, global, unpredictable…and more human centered.

We have moved beyond the Information Age into an age where knowledge, relevance and connecting the dots in our environment are what counts: Daniel Pink, in his book A Whole New Mind, calls it the Conceptual Age. Going forward, creativity and real innovation will play a much larger role: make room for more right brain thinking.

The Solution

We can help the cause by first breaking away from the status quo-quit following the herd. Quit thinking like marketers, start thinking like creative humans. How would a small businessman handle this problem? How would an artist, a scientist?

Think about your audience first, second and last. They don’t really care about your service or product, only if it helps them improve their lives. What are the issues that keep them up at night-these are your topics.

So you need to go beyond the “best practices” and mechanics (ex: the latest Twitter techniques) and teach people to think and act socially- to be social. In our training, we always work on helping people understand how to be social–how to engage, how to go beyond the story line and so on. It’s ok to be engaging. It’s ok to be interesting. It’s ok to not have an agenda. Let your passion show. It’s ok.

Corporate bloggers are our modern day story-tellers, and once we can tap into that force we are looking at unlimited possibilities. But that means changing the way we manage our companies, and actually changing the way we think. That according to Pink requires more balanced thinking– processes and creativity, systems and exploration. The goal is to make an intellectual AND emotional connection with our employees, colleagues and customers (think of Apple, and the emotional connection of its customers).

Social media can help fuel this movement and I believe it can ultimately reshape the corporation. But after 20 yrs at this, I’m also not naive. Nothing is assured; the corporate way of life has been around for decades, and social media only a few years. Change will be slow and uneven.

Ultimately we have to tap into people’s incredible need for meaning in life.

In Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl showed through his amazing odyssey in German concentration camps, that people are not driven by fear, pleasure or to avoid pain as much as a quest for meaning. How can we tap into this huge motivational force to help drive social media in a way that ultimately transforms our companies (and makes life a little better)? How can we bring about real corporate change?