What We Talk About When We Talk About Social Brands

There’s this soundbite of a notion that’s been circling for the past few years about the sink-or-swim necessity of being a ‘social brand.’ 

“All brands need to find their voice within social media or they’re not going to be in existence any more. I’m not arguing versus traditional mediums and television and billboards. Those will serve a role in it. But unless a brand really has a social voice, unless they stand for a set of beliefs, unless they’re a social brand, they’re not going to exist two years from now.” – Jason Peterson, CCO of Havas

But it’s easy to talk yourself in a circle trying to delineate what exactly that means.

Are social brands brands with a healthy Instagram following? (Sometimes.) Are social brands brands that are contributing to the social, pop culture ecosystem? (Not necessarily.) Are they brands that take a stand on social issues? (Only if it makes sense for you.)

Depending on how you answer that question, the follow up question is usually as follows: Can you be a ‘social brand’ if you’re not Nike? Can you be a ‘social brand’ if your marketing budget is less than 7 figures a year? 

Yes. You can and you must.

When you boil it down, being a social brand is as simple as listening to your audience. Social media has changed a million things about the world, but more than anything, it means there is no excuse for not having a relevant POV for how you can relate to your audience. Finally, the conversations people have been having behind closed doors are out in the open for everyone to see! Social media allows us to look inside these conversations and empowers us to react accordingly.

Here’s how it works:

Hop onto Instagram/Facebook/Twitter/Pinterest/LinkedIn/Reddit/
YouTube and listen to what people are staying about your brand. Listen to what people are saying about your industry and competitors. Read the comments. Follow that rabbit hole from Person A to coworker to cousin to best friend. Most importantly, listen to what your audience is saying about things outside of your brand. What are their hobbies? What do they love about life and what are they just trying to survive? What words do they use? Who do they love and what are those peoples’ hobbies?

Eventually, the dust will clear and you’ll be start to make out how your brand fits in this world. The next part is the hardest. The next part is what will separate successful ‘social brands’ from everyone else. Because research only counts if you use it. Take what you’ve learned, and turn it into action. Turn it into brand positioning and product lines. Turn it into tag lines and media plans.

Examples of doing it right:


Image Credit: CoverGirl/Lacey Terrell

To launch their new #SoLashy campaign last fall, CoverGirl enlisted a variety of beauty influencers with large social media followers, including their first CoverBoy James Charles, a decision they likely wouldn’t have made without the idea first proving itself viable via his social media following. YouTube and Instagram both have huge ‘beauty blogger’ communities were viewers gravitate toward the content they’re actually interested in seeing. By learning from this organic user behavior, beauty brands are able to identify the personalities and products that will resonate most with their customers regardless of media tactic.


Image Credit: @helper

In 2013, Hamburger Helper found a new voice by pivoting away from the family targeting expected of a CPG brand and focusing on a younger audience where they could make an impact. As Digiday pointed out, the brand focused its’ social strategy on Twitter and adopted a hip-hop inspired tone and voice that resonated with the people they were trying to reach. Years later, after this strategy proved successful, they took it a step further, using Twitter to release a viral hip hop mix tape on April Fool’s Day, finding relevance in a time when packaged-goods are struggling to do so.

Looking forward:

Being a ‘social brand’ can mean a lot of things, but the brands that are going to succeed are the brands that are listening to their audience and adjusting their course based on what they hear. After all, social platforms will come and go, but staying relevant to your target audience is forever.