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Opinion: Why branding on social media isn’t working for businesses

Industry Insight

Posted online

Two billion. That’s how many users now visit Facebook. That’s more people than in India, and more than China. That’s more than five times the population of our own country.

It’s just a staggering amount of human beings thumbing through their phones each and every day.

Of course, we can’t expect to reach all of these people with the digital content from our businesses. It even seems a bit far-fetched to think we could reach every American with our videos, tweets and photos – but the very construct of social media allows us to think it’s possible. At least that was the perception for marketers and advertisers in the early days.

Social media was supposed to let businesses and their brands circumvent traditional media and connect directly with consumers, forging relationships without the help of print, radio and television.

Douglas Holt, a former Harvard University business professor, explored the subject in a 2016 piece for the Harvard Business Review. In it, he says businesses large and small made huge investments in branded content, betting that telling compelling stories and connecting in real-time would build vast digital hubs buzzing with eager customers. But very few businesses saw that reality. For many companies, social media has seemingly made their brands less significant.

If you take a glance at the most popular social media accounts out there, a pretty stark revelation sinks in: Corporate brands barely register. In fact, the most popular YouTube channels come from entertainers you’ve probably never heard of, like PewDiePie, a Swedish video gamer with 54.1 million subscribers. Katy Perry, Justin Bieber and Barack Obama boast the most Twitter followers, in that order, while musician Selena Gomez rules on Instagram. Facebook’s top 10 fan pages feature two soccer icons and their respective teams, Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo at No. 1 and Argentina’s Leo Messi at No. 8, while Spain’s Real Madrid and FC Barcelona sit at Nos. 2 and 4, respectively.

As it turns out, consumers are disinterested in branded content. That’s why Facebook now wants your business to boost its posts – because most people, even fans, don’t want brand spam in their feed.

We grew accustomed to brands infiltrating culture through traditional mass media, sponsoring our favorite TV shows and bands. Fans of The Beatles who watched their historic performance on “The Ed Sullivan Show” heard live ads from Lincoln-Mercury read by Sullivan. It was simple and effective.

But the advent of social media brought something advertisers and marketers did not expect: new competition — and not from mass media itself, but from the crowd.

The feud between Coca-Cola and Pepsi is legendary. The soda giants both spend north of $3 billion in annual advertising as they wrestle for supremacy. But now, after decades of fighting with each other, both find themselves looking up at a guy who posts barely edited video game voiceovers. On social media, the battle isn’t about which soda to pick up but how to even effectively showcase their products in the first place. PewDiePie has 80 times more YouTube subscribers than Coke, earning $15 million a year from his basement. Despite spending billions, even the world’s largest brands can’t get social media users to care about them.

So how can brands and businesses like ours find success in the chaos of social media? Red Bull, Chipotle and Old Spice provide some shining examples. They implemented culture strategies over social media strategies. Red Bull has attached itself to a subculture keen on extreme and alternative sports, producing content in line with customer expectations of its product. Chipotle became the affordable antithesis of the “pink slime” craze that permeated our news feeds, while Old Spice carved out a niche with hipsters who weren’t quite team Axe or team Dove.

But what all three of these brands share is a different approach to social media branding where they target a like-minded segment of society – what Holt calls a “crowdculture” – rather than the traditional advertising methods that worked so long for Don Draper and company. For Chipotle, it wasn’t a YouTube strategy that proved successful but communications that countered societal norms for fast food. Old Spice didn’t use a Facebook strategy but leveraged self-deprecating humor to strike a chord with its target audience.

More than a decade into social media, we’ve discovered that what works for Bieber and Messi backfires for Coke and Pepsi. For businesses, the key to winning on social media isn’t found in branded content mired in mediocrity.

Businesses and their brands need a cultural strategy. Identify who you are, who’s into what you do and speak directly to them. Then see what happens.

Ryan Bowling is an online marketing specialist for Guaranty Bank. He can be reached at


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