Branding is critical to a company’s success. There is nothing more complex in today’s ever-evolving media landscape than creating and maintaining a strong brand. Social media offers several advantages, and numerous challenges, for branding professionals.

A former practicing psychologist, Tom Guarriello, Ph.D. is currently Chief Idea Officer of TrueTalk, Inc., a management consulting firm, and co-author of the book Work Different: Design For The Rest of Us. He teaches a Masters course in Branding at the School of Visual Arts in New York City.

Digital Park is delighted that Dr. Guarriello agreed to participate in a question and answer session, offering a perspective on branding from someone who teaches it to aspiring and practicing marketing executives, management consultants and public relations professionals. Follow him on Twitter at @tomguarriello.

Digital Park: Dr. Guarriello, how do you define “Branding” to your students at the School of Visual Arts?

Tom Guarriello: The class that I teach is called “The meaning of branded objects.” The reason I created the course is because to me brands are bundles of meaning. I’m a psychologist, so meaning is very important to me and brands for me are these packets of meaning that become attached to objects and to experiences. Meaning they’re both individual and collective and logical and emotional. So I define brands in terms of those kinds of characteristics of meaning attached to things.

For example, take a brand like Apple. There is a collective meaning that is a kind of a general context that Apple functions within culturally. So, when you say “Apple” to 100 people you can expect that 95 of them are going to understand that you are not talking about a fruit but a technology company that has a certain set of characteristics or meanings that are attached to the brand. But then there are also individualized, personal wrinkles on the brand. So for each of us the brand takes on a slightly different meaning, tone, and color. Some of us are in love with it, some of us hate it. That’s the individual and collective, logical and emotional dimensions of brands.

You’re very active with social media, both professionally and personally. You were an early adopter of Facebook, Twitter, and Google+ and you’ve been actively vlogging on YouTube since 2006. How has social media transformed the way we brand products, services, and organizations?

I think it’s transformed it a lot! The holy grail of brands has always been to try to figure out what people think and how they feel – and what they believe. Branding professionals have tried for decades to find all kinds of ways to determine what the customer thinks about things. You know, focus groups, surveys, all kinds of techniques to try to figure that out. Well, in the last 15 years or so, we’ve been given the keys to the customers thinking.

Every day on social media, the customer tells us in all kinds of ways what she thinks, and why she likes one thing rather than another. Now she may do that actively by creating blogs or tweets or videos, or some such thing, in which she’s telling us a lot about either a particular product or about a product category or the way products fit into her world. All of those active channels are sources of really rich information about what products and what specific brands mean to her.

Then there are the passive channels, which are now the subject of so much controversy. The passive channels are really the “behavioral data exhaust” that we all leave in social media via our journey through the web every day. The Google Analytics trail will tell us what bread crumbs we left to get to a particular site, what our path was. Those are the passive ways that social media has transformed branding.

So branding professionals are becoming highly adept at following those active and passive signal trails to gather the voice of the customer and bring it into the organization. That’s what the smart brands are doing with all of this data that’s out there. Now, it’s overwhelming and, like with any data, you have to be an expert analyst to properly interpret it, but there’s an unprecedented amount of information that the customer is telling us about her world every day in social media. So it’s been revolutionary.

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