Your Brand in the World Wide West

You’ve established your brand in the marketplace. Everyone knows who you are, what you offer, and what you stand for, so you can focus on product sales and short-term revenue gains, right? Sorry, but like so many other aspects of marketing, brand is shifting under your feet.

In budget crunch times, it would be nice to be able to relegate brand building to the back burner. But crowdsourcing, social media, the Internet, and widespread connectivity have fundamentally changed the landscape. There has always been friendly internal friction between the short-term revenue goals of sales and the longer-term, thoughtful brand-building of marketing. Now, brand-building must shift to a faster, more responsive speed.

The Internet is a noisy space with a proliferation of free resources, new titles, and small companies using interactive technologies like apps and social media marketing to gain recognition. Educators continue to be brand loyal, and products and services that are fully integrated into schools, districts, and assessment protocols have a strong foothold. But that loyalty is tied to utility, and educators will always flock to what works.

With limited budgets and direct access to teachers and classrooms via mobile devices, new players are bypassing traditional marketing channels. So while your brand may not have changed, the environment in which it operates has. This presents a challenge, and an opportunity.

The changing face of brand.

Brand has two facets: the inviolate statement of company values and value, and the public expression of that brand through communications and actions. A company’s brand identity can and should be a fixed point, but when, where, and how that identity is expressed is undergoing a sea of change.

Brands used to be known by logos, mission statements, and market positioning. It used to be sufficient to state who you are: to broadcast a consistent brand message and create all marketing pieces to be consistent with that message. Today, brand is as much what you do as what you say.

Brand as an action, not a position.

Brands, especially in education, need to embrace affective strategies that demonstrate they are acting with their heart as well as their head. Support of teachers; giving back to education; sensitivity to educator issues like limited budgets and time constraints: these are all affective and effective brand strategies. But again, these strategies will not work as statements or broadcasts. They must be made evident through actions that prompt the association between your brand and those values in the minds and conversations of your customers.

This represents a radical shift in the “voice” of the brand. Now you have to mold the image of the brand in cooperation with people who engage with the brand. A brand identity that says “we believe in teachers” can’t come from marketing. It has to grow organically. Educators value vendors and partners who get their world, are giving back, and make them feel they are dealing with real live people instead of widgets.

This can be a big adjustment for marketers used to controlling the message and the image. You have to be okay with free, un-moderated dialogue about your brand—24/7 on multiple platforms—and with taking the good with the bad. One of the advantages of working in the education market is that educators are a coherent, talkative audience. They are accustomed to sharing their opinions with peers, within districts, and at conferences. So, if teachers or educators have something negative to say about your brand, you will know about it. Think of it as a continuous research or focus group project that gives you the opportunity to engage right away, make corrections, and regroup.

New, but not uncharted territory.

For many brands, this loss of control sounds scary and risky. Luckily, there are ways of venturing into social media branding that mitigate risk and build on best practices. MDR’s digital and social media marketing arm, offers brands an opportunity to benefit from what others have learned in this new world. Our WeAreTeachers team has worked with hundreds of brands, helping them establish a productive foothold in social media branding and lead generation. By sharing experiences, they steer brands away from bad ideas and offer proven alternatives. WeAreTeachers acts as a petri dish for brands to get their feet wet in this new territory.

Here are some strategies our WeAreTeachers team recommends for brands new to social media marketing:

  • Be there. Establish a social media presence on various platforms. Be experimental and conversational to understand how your audience is using the various channels and how they are responding. Take a traditional marketing/branding effort and add a social media twist to it. Host a Teacher Tuesday or sponsor an edu-blogger group at a trade show.
  • Claim your thought leadership space. Analyze who you are as a brand and identify an affective strategy you want to be known for, such as giving back to education. Solicit stories from users demonstrating how your brand has made a significant impact on a child, teacher, or family. Direct evidence of brand values in action, not marketing-speak or product promotion, is the kind of social media content that is most viral and most resonant.
  • Ride the long tail. Always amplify any social media content by pushing out interesting tidbits across Twitter, Pinterest, Facebook, email, and web ads. Social media branding is not a one-time event, but a process of planting multiple points of stimulation for a lengthier conversation. This type of content has a much longer shelf life and in some cases can be evergreen.
  • Make messages mobile. Apps present a great penetration opportunity for companies large and small because the cost is low and the potential for word-of-mouth propagation is high. Any strategy that allows your message to move laterally and up the food chain easily speeds your brand-building throughout an education ecosystem.
  • Speak the local language. Be thoughtful about what you post. It’s obvious to the audience if a company is product-focused vs. brand-focused. Don’t say, “Check out this new solution we’re offering.” It won’t do your brand any good and it will be ignored. But, if you run a contest that asks teachers already using your product how they make it work with their kids, you’ve created a branding and product strategy that can work in social media.
  • Align your brand with value. Time pressure is a big pain point for teachers, so speeding their access to valuable content is a great strategy for any brand. For example, WeAreTeachers is partnering with professional associations, conferences, post-secondary education providers, and others to aggregate relevant materials, lesson plans, dialogues, blogs, and videos around specific topics. Brands are then offered  the opportunity to sponsor that topic space, aligning them with this one-stop resource that solves a problem for teachers.
  • Pay them in their currency. Educators value recognition over money. Every principal is looking for something other than test scores to show they are a good school that is doing great things for kids and making a difference. Content that features kudos for best practices, or that highlights schools that have solved a hard problem tend to go viral because they credit the hard work of educators or teachers. And your brand becomes the conduit for those good feelings.

It’s not pinning Jell-O to the wall.

Measurement and ROI are the watchwords of marketing. How do you know you are getting results with social media brand building?

Many tools are available to give you numbers associated with conversation around your brand on the various platforms. While these tools do require due diligence and monitoring, they can pay dividends in allowing deep analysis of which educators are likely to engage with the brand, where the conversations are occurring, at what time of day, etc. A contest or program monitored with these tools can surface groups or demographics of teachers who are particularly responsive to your brand’s message, delivering you research and actual leads.

Traditional measures also work just fine in social media. A rule of thumb is that you should see a sales impact approximately 90 days after any branding effort. A simple overlay of Twitter followers, edu-blogger conversations, Pinterest activity, etc. with revenues, email opens, and click-throughs should likewise reveal an impact.

What are your thoughts on brand building?  Comment below!