The Power of Bottom-Up Branding

Every marketer should read the recent Harvard Business Review article, “Branding in the Age of Social Media,” by Douglas Holt. The former Harvard and Oxford University professor asserts that most businesses are failing with social media because they’re using the same tactics they used in the days of mass media.

This familiar strategy is called “branded content.” The idea is to create memorable content that people come to associate with a brand. It’s not a new idea. Back in the 1950s brands sponsored popular TV shows, and legendary advertising campaigns like “I can’t believe I ate the whole thing” were based upon the same idea.

“While promoters insist that branded content is a hot new thing, it’s actually a relic of the mass media age that has been repackaged as a digital concept,” Holt writes. The tactic worked with a more or less captive audience, but in a world of unlimited media choice people simply turn to something else.

The PewDiePie effect

The most head-snapping statistic Holt cites is that despite having thrown billions of dollars into video marketing over the past decade, only three brands have made it onto the list of the top 500 most popular YouTube channels. In contrast, the most popular YouTube stars are brands you’ve never heard of: VanossGaming (15.6 million subscribers), elrubiusOMG (15.6 million) and PewDiePie a 26-year-old Swede whose narrated video game sessions have attracted an incredible 42 million subscribers.

These personalities have cashed in on something Holt calls “cultural branding.” Rather than imposing their idea of what they think is memorable from the top down, they tap into the bottom-up memes that emerge in online communities. Then they align their content with what they believe these enthusiasts value most.

Brands can do this, too. Under Armour’s brilliant “I Will What I Want” video series celebrates the achievements of notable women against daunting odds. Dove’s “Campaign for Real Beauty” is an ongoing series that taps into women’s frustration at popular perceptions of beauty. Both of these campaigns go against the grain. More importantly, they take a stand.

What do you stand for?

This can work for B2B companies, too. The technology industry is in the middle of a massive transformation driven by cloud computing, mobility, social media and software-defined infrastructure. A lot of people are nervous about how these shifts will affect them. Will their skills become obsolete? Will they lead their companies down the wrong path? Can they trust the institutions that advise them?

Discomfort creates a need for leadership. That’s you. Tech firms that take a stand and advocate for their customers can break away from the pack. Apple is the classic example of a company that aligned itself with a way of thinking epitomized by its slogan, “Think Different.” There aren’t many Apples out there, but there are plenty of opportunities to do what Apple did on a smaller scale.

One of Holt’s most important observations is about the importance of individuals in brand definintion. He notes that many athletes, actors and even business leaders have much larger social followings than the companies they represent. Brands can’t hope to achieve the same level of engagement.

“Interacting with a favored entertainer is different from interacting with a brand of rental car or orange juice,” Holt writes. “The idea that consumers could possibly want to talk about Corona or Coors in the same way that they debate the talents of Ronaldo and Messi is silly.”

Every brand manager should think about this. The people who best represent your brand are your employees, partners and even your customers. They have the credibility, the knowledge and the passion to engage in ways that brands can never duplicate. Are you doing all you can to make the most of them?

B2B Employee Advocacy

Photo by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center via Flickr CC

About Paul Gillin

Paul Gillin is a writer, speaker, online marketing consultant and social media coach with Profitecture. Since 2005, he has helped business-to-business marketers at companies of all sizes and in many industries use social media and quality content to reach and engage with customers. He is also a prolific writer who has published more than 200 articles on the subject of new media. His books include: "The New Influencers" (2007), "Secrets of Social Media Marketing" (2008), "The Joy of Geocaching" (2010) and "Social Marketing to the Business Customer" (2011) and "Attack of the Customers" (2013). He has written the monthly New Channels column for BtoB magazine since 2006. Paul is a veteran technology journalist with more than 25 years of editorial leadership experience. His website is and he blogs at and Newspaper Death Watch.