Part 1- Digital Brand Building (What & Why)

Digital is a broad term and encompasses a variety of skill-sets and channels to achieve specific goals. There’s the usual paid, owned and earned each with an aligning goal. While they all contribute towards building a brand’s presence digitally, I’ve been seeing a lot more conversations and interest around how these, if they do at all, contribute towards differentiating a brand as a thought leader or building a positive brand presence. The term “thought leader” implies intelligence, knowledge, and a higher purpose and those claims need to be justified. That term is not appropriate for every brand – but every brand must strive for differentiation using the tools and channels afforded by digital. And there are different ways to earn it. For the purposes of these posts, I may use the terms digital thought-leadership and digital brand building interchangeably. I’ve tried to explore some of these questions that I’ve been thinking about for a while. (What is digital brand building; Associated Benefits, Implementations, Measurement & Case Studies)


Thought-Leadership has long been the competing ground for organizations whose primary product is expertise or strategic advice. Think professional strategy firms, business schools and to a certain extent even advertising agencies that utilize its assets (top analysts, professors, research facilities) to author strategic POVS and create new strategy tools, in the hopes of gaining mind share of potential executives, clients and students. (The most famous example of thought leadership building is the 2003  BRIC report authored by Goldman Sach’s economist Jim O’Neill) I believe two absolutes set apart a brand that gets thought-leadership from one that doesn’t.

Solid POV: And this isn’t just the mission statement of the company, but an encapsulation of how the mission statement of the company manifests practically. An intelligent insight into what the company stands for, what it believes in and why. Zappos is the perfect embodiment of this value; for Zappos, Customer Service trumps all else and the company lives and breathes this dictum on an everyday basis (creating some very inspiring stories in the process – but we’ll get to that later)

The point of view must be singular and all actions (and in-actions) of the company must reinforce it. Whether it was through Tony Sheih’s book “Delivering Happiness” or through the Zappos HQ visits (open to everyone) – the company has a focused message and hones in on it through various channels.

I believe that it is key that the point-of-view be timely and culturally relevant. No one cares about a company mission if its only self-serving and not contextualized in culture, environment or a belief.

Benevolence: There are many ways to interpret this term. What I mean by benevolence is a disciplined approach to creating an inclusive dialogue around the brand’s POV. For some it means sharing the “insider” process, for others it means opening up their doors and the breaking the PR strategist rules. (Reed Hastings, CEO of Netflix, offers candid and honest answers to questions about Netflix operations, his POV on the business and where it is headed on Quora) Benevolence involves offering value but also allowing the community to create value.

Benevolence also applies to the culture at the company. We are living in fairly transparent times and with sites like Quora, Glassdoor, Vault, Twitter etc, consumers are able to discern the company culture. So when Reed Hastings publishes a Slideshare saying very honestly (and a tad bit clinically) that Netflix does not treat its employees as family, – as a reader and a believer, I respect that.

That said, I don’t think all brands that practice benevolence do it for good karma. Benevolence or community giving is a popular earned media trick – but often it ends up positively influencing the brand’s basic value system on some level.

Roger White of Pendry White Marketing Communications agrees and sums it up rather well when he says:

Thought Leaders do three things well.

  • They raise the profile of an issue and deepen understanding
  • They set the agenda with their industry peers.
  • They introduce new topics to the boards of potential and current clients in their chosen fields and they do these things over a prolonged timeframe

I couldn’t have said this better. This definition however, is not applicable to all brands. (A Skittles, Axe or Old Spice wouldn’t quite fit in this category, but they differentiate themselves in different ways.) What I want you to take away though, is that Thought leadership or Digital Brand building exists on a continuum and not at fixed points in history. It builds over existing brand truths and manifests them in ways that make sense to the audiences and fit contextually within the culture.


Digital brand building accelerates serendipitous stumbling of audiences into the brand’s experience set

The consumer purchase journey is no longer linear. According to this study by McKinsey, the evolved consumer journey has two key phases: Initial Consideration & Active Evaluation. In both these phases, consumers are likely to be influenced by friends and family but also have a propensity to seek out brand experiences, whether they are digital, in-store, or traditional. Screen shot 2011-05-05 at 10.40.48 AM

Most brands err on the side of creating a fantastic brand platform and compelling ad campaigns. But the channels for these are passive and linear. Brands aren’t yet considering the question: how can we accelerate serendipitous stumbling into our worlds? Digital brand experiences help create a persistent presence but also increase the likelihood of increasing opportunities for audience engagement and influencing them positively. It grants brand the promotion from the Consideration to the Evaluation stage – at which point the more rational elements kick in. (comparison shopping, information gathering etc)

Digital brand building enhances the perceived value awareness of the brand, thus accelerating arrival at purchase

While metrics are hard to find, the most important benefit of building thought leadership is to build value awareness and increase the perceived value of the brand/ product. Stronger digital brand experience, have a propensity to generate more earned media and provide additional fodder for search engines. As such, ownership of search results become critical in influencing brand evaluations. (A recent Nielsen and AOL study found that 53% of time spent online is directly attributable to content consumption. Out of which, nearly 60% of all shared content specifically mention a brand or product name.)

These thoughts are still in exploration and I will continue to sharpen and better this post as my own thinking evolves. My next post, I’ll focus more on the how, measurement and discuss some excellent case-studies.

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