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Identity, Brands and Social Networking (Notes from the Google Faculty Unconference)

If I don't get distracted or busy, this should be the first in a short series of posts about stuff I learnt and/or enjoyed at the Google Faculty UnConference.

The conference was a small gathering and had tons of breakout sessions and one keynote by Prof. Mohan Sawhney, which for me was one of the most enjoyable parts of the conference.

Prof. Sawhney had some excellent ideas and structures, and was extremely entertaining to boot. I'll try to go through, and comment on some of the points he made.

I'll start with the comedy:
  • On choosing to speak without PowerPoint: "PowerPoint is a good crutch, but once you learn to walk you need to throw it away."
  • Early efforts with brand marketing trying to use social networking: "It was a lot like teenage sex. Everyone had heard about it, nobody was really doing it, thought that everyone else was doing it, and when a few of them tried it, it was really,really bad."
His contention was that branding (or rather marketers trying to drive brand awareness through Internet advertising) was largely ignored in "Web 1.0." The focus was mostly on direct-response ads.

He believed that media was now
  • interactive
  • social
  • and mobile
had an opportunity to change that. His contention was that Google's dominance in search advertising hadn't translated well to this market. The quote was "Google is lost in display advertising." Hmmm....:)

The framework he applied to understand this (my translation of it anyway) was
  • Identity: understanding the goals of people when they engage in social networks
  • Understanding how Brands could help further those goals and hence be a natural part of these networks

So what is Identity? Its who we are as defined by our geography, community, ethnicity, interests etc. It is something we actively express: we have status, social circles etc. However, in the digital world while we have much more opportunity to express our identity, the identity itself is fragmented.
  • Geography becomes irrelevant
  • Consistency no longer holds. For example, I see that my LinkedIn interests become different from Facebook interests (in my case I have none:)) and language used to express oneself changes too; not just because of the friends in the medium (MySpace vs. say an alumni Network) but because of the limitations of the medium (SMS or Twitter vs. a text box.)
  • Identity becomes distributed
  • Fantasy becomes an active part of this, as avatars and virtual worlds become more common especially amongst the younger set (ugh, startling realization that this grouping hasn't refered to me for years now!:))
  • Goals of expression and friendship change too (he called it as bipolar behavior, which seemed a great characterization): in some case the expresssion can be quite private (e.g. in a locked social network like eHarmony) or extremely public bordering on exhibitionist. The goals of "friending" people can be different too: in some cases it can be a genuine desire to connect, but can also just be a desire to gain social capital.
  • It is also a way to identify with causes

Now what is Brand Identity? That's a couple of lectures that I stayed awake through in school all on its own, but Prof. Sawhney summarized it as
  • Physical identity: logo, trademark, packaging etc. etc.
  • Cognitive identity: i.e. the associations it generall evokes (e.g. BMW = new money, Mercedes = old money, Lexus = smart money?)
  • Affective identity
  • Relational identity
  • Spiritual identity

Given these concepts of identity how can brands insert themselves into the equation:
  • Brands as expression enablers: i.e. it means something to have that brand around you; it says something about you and your personality e.g.
    • Apple people, Blackberry user
    • MiniCopper driver
    • Harley Davidson owner
  • Brands as communication facilitators:
    e.g. sports/tv shows etc. are ways to start conversations and relate. Use your brand as a way to let people make those connections
  • Brands as fantasy enablers: allow people to imagine themselves a certain way:
    • Victoria's Secret ads
    • Brand-sponsored fantasy games when done well e.g. Adidas on Myspace

  • Brands as cause supporters: Associate yourself with a big, aspirational idea that others care about. The risk here though is that you need to be authentic otherwise the consequences can be bad.
    • Dove and the campaign for real beauty.
    • Ethos Water (Drink this water, and we'll help poor children get clean water)
  • Brands as a service: Do something useful for me.
    • Nike and its attempts to help you manage your activities
  • Brands as community enablers: I thought this was similar to the one above, but essentially build a community of people that care about similar things and associate it with your brand.
  • Brands as story tellers:
    • E.g. Geico and the Cavemen's Crib (Btw, did anyone actually watch the TV Show?)
      Its interesting how on Caveman's Cribs they don't bother pushing the product at all, just developing the characters.
    • Splenda journeys: an example where the stories are appealing and the brand is woven in
There may actually have been one more such example, but it had been a long day and I was losing steam by then.:(:)

This one's gone long enough as is, but some of my own concluding thoughts
  • There isn't a formula here: it'll continue to be a combination of art and science that works
  • Repeatability of ideas and concepts will be low
  • A lot of the pressure will shift to advertising agenices and marketing departments of these companies to figure this out. The key for Companies that manage these social sites (YouTube, Google, MySpace, Facebook etc.) is helping them figure out, quickly, how to use their sites effectively
  • Taking a look above again. Every one of the strategies above can have video and community either as critical part of it, or as central to it, which of course implies its great for us over at YouTube/Google

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