We're With the Brand

The fluxing future of brand identity

Molly Crabapple
Molly Crabapple

When branding was first invented, it was literal. Heat a shaped branding iron and sear your mark into your property or livestock to say: "This is mine. Steal it, use it, or pretend that it's yours, and everyone will know." Yet the world doesn't run on something as solid as cattle any more. Instead, just as commerce has become virtual, brands have become concepts defined as much by their users as by their legal owners.

E-business analyst John Biehler started wondering about these questions of brand ownership after a conversation with his wife. "She's a computer-savvy, social-media-literate power user of things like Facebook and Twitter," he said, "And she's always asking me: 'Why did they make this change? Why are they doing all these things that wreck my experience?'" As an early adopter, she's one of the customers who gave social media sites the content and contacts that made their brand worthwhile, but who feel rejected when the service monetizes. Biehler bluntly asked, "What do they do that pisses off people like my wife?"

Internet marketing expert Chris Heuer, who will co-host the panel Do Cool Kids Leave When the Suits Arrive? with Biehler, explained, "All these cool kids feel like insiders, and all of a sudden they're overtaken by a storm of new people that they don't know." He argues that social media companies must act as an intermediary to commingle the brand-creating users with the new crowd. He warned, "With everyone in large corporations tasked to 110 percent of their capacity, it's hard to do everything right, so this is often something people skip out on."

We're With the Brand

The first step is keeping the original in-house brand creators – the artists, designers, and programmers – happy and onboard. Molly Crabapple is arguably the walking, talking, drawing definition of the cool kid creator: An author, poster designer, freelance illustrator published in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, and the entrepreneur behind the burlesque-inspired Dr. Sketchy's Anti-Art School, she'll be part of the Selling Subculture Without Selling Out panel. "I'm very much not a suit," she said. "I've never worked in an office in my life." She agreed that among artists there is "a real antagonism and hostility to corporations, but at the same time every major artist is working with them." In her opinion, what artists should remember is that corporations aren't deliberately trying to homogenize their visions ("There are plenty of gray-flannel people in the world as is") but they may not understand it. She argued: "You must define the values that you hold dear and be unwilling to compromise. Very often, if you do hold on to those values, you'll be surprised how flexible people will be."

So what about the power users and early adopters? Helen Klein Ross suggests firms may have to loosen their tight grip on their brands to give those users reasons to stick around. Twitterers and fans of Mad Men may know Ross better as @BettyDraper, the unofficial tweeting presence of the character from AMC's award-winning show. She calls her tweets "brand fiction," a term she coined at SXSW 2009 for "an audience member who presumed what I and other Mad Men tweeters were doing was fan fiction." Her in-character tweets, she said, "were really in service of a brand that I really feel passionate about." AMC initially asked Twitter to suspend such in-character accounts but quickly retreated ("Probably prodded by their digital agency," she said). Since that policy reversal, @BettyDraper has reached more than 24,000 followers, and now Ross has established www.brandfictionfactory.com to explain the value of such projects. The seeming contradiction of a veteran advertising director effectively advertising a TV show about advertising execs for free isn't lost on her. However, she said, "The consumer has changed, and that's why the brand story has to change."

Crabapple concurred, adding, "You have to give people a certain amount of ownership over your brand to make them do really creative things with it. If you try to fascistically dictate exactly how your brand is going to be used, you're just going to create a dead museum piece."

Related Panels

Do Cool Kids Leave When the Suits Arrive?
Friday, March 12, 3:30pm, Hilton E

Rules of BrandFiction From Twittering MadMen
Saturday, March 13, 3:30pm, Hilton D

Selling Subculture Without Selling Out
Sunday, March 14, 12:30pm, Hilton C

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brand identity, brand idendity, brand fiction, @BettyDraper, John Biehler, early adopter, Chris Heuer, Do Cool Kids Leave When the Suits Arrive?, Molly Crabapple, Dr. Sketchy's Anti-Art School, Selling Subculture Without Selling Out, Helen Klein Ross, Twitter, Mad Men

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