Smart firms use social skills to increase their brand equity
The enduring premise of brand equity, as defined by David A. Aaker in the early 90s, relies on the ability of a business to grow and nurture:
- Brand awareness: share of mind
- Perceived quality: seen as better/best fit for me relative to other providers
- Brand loyalty: enduring preference
- Brand associations: empathy, flexibility, reliability, cost-consciousness etc.
- Other assets: trademarks, proprietary assets etc.
Most firms are well used to influencing one or more of these five dimensions through their use of the traditional marketing mix. But an overreliance on these tools as the only remedies for a continuous growth of brand equity has never been a successful strategy for brand management in the B2B setting, because it ignores the contributions of personal interactions between employees and clients to a client’s experience with a firm. So for a long time, smart firms have also heavily invested in human capital, i.e. attracting and hiring the ‘best’ people for the job, and in ensuring that these individuals are well versed in the traditional means of relationship building through face-to-face business meetings, industry conferences and so on (‘relationship capital’).
The marketing mix was traditionally considered the province of the marketing department, while HR managed a firm’s incoming human capital, and BD managers and managing partners were relied upon to nurture relationships. Between these three functions, a firm could largely control the drivers of brand equity, but today there are activities affecting a firm’s brand that are literally out of the hands of its traditional brand guardians.
The new sources of capital
It is clear that the way in which firms connect with potential buyers and the market has changed. The internet is enabling conversations that were simply not possible in an era dominated by mass media, such that many buying decisions now start, progress, and in some cases even close online without any face-to-face meetings. The increasing online presence of firms and their professionals in response to this market demand means that there are now other inputs feeding the growth (or demise) of brand equity in the digital era, which firms must recognise and actively manage:
- Social capital: Social media has greatly increased the scale and reach of relationship networks, with ‘external relations’ no longer limited to firm leaders, marketing or BD managers. Regular employees have ready access to social platforms and are choosing to take part in ‘social conversations’ – with or without firm support. These individuals are sharing their thoughts, opinions and expertise directly with the market in much more visible and enduring ways than ever before. They are becoming visible experts in the marketplace, either by design or accident, whether firms like it or not. They represent a new breed of brand ambassador that firms need to manage, since every status update an employee makes on LinkedIn, every tweet they send, reflects back on the firm. Where previously the goal was to simply hire the best individual for a job, the branding imperative today is to ‘hire and wire’: hire the best people who also have the best networks and ‘social nous’. In response, we see smart firms modifying their talent brands to attract these kinds of individuals and actively nurturing their social contributions so that they are of clear benefit to the firm’s reputation, rather than a liability
- Knowledge capital: Because professional encounters on social platforms are fuelled by the exchange of knowledge, ‘knowledge capital’ has also become a key driver of brand equity. While knowledge has always been an essential component of human capital, its status has been elevated in the digital era by the increased visibility that the net has given to information (particularly information in the form of applied expertise). Online channels demand a value exchange, and knowledge is the preferred currency.
How connected your firm and its people are to the market in an online sense – and what contributions you are making in this space – is now contributing to brand equity, either positively or negatively. The question has become: how do your firm’s marketing activities strengthen your employees’ personal networks across social platforms like LinkedIn, and align these with the sales funnel, in a way that builds trusted relationships and supports meaningful discussions with the right people at the right time?
This post was contributed by Candice O’Sullivan, Director and Head of Strategy at Wellmark. You can find Candice on Google+ at +Candice O’Sullivan or follow her tweets on brand strategy, content marketing and related topics @candicepill.