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When Brands Act Like People

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Your image is your brand, and your words are forever. - Seth Kaufman,

With brands and people increasingly coexisting in social spaces, it's no wonder they're starting to act like each other.

This summer, on the heels of the Supreme Court recognizing free speech rights for companies, Mitt Romney reassured an audience that corporations are people. This has become the core tenet for Stephen Colbert's Super PAC. It's not a particularly recent concept - as far back as 1936, 7-Up was trying to make friends with it's consumers: "You Like It, It Likes You" - an early instance of a brand suggesting it is capable of a social relationship.

More recently - call it since GeoCities - marketers tried to advertise into communities but found it hard to achieve scale and build authentic communication while tightly controlling the message. So they started trying to build their own communities. For example, Sprite (what is it about lemon-lime soft drinks?) invited young consumers to join a Sprite-specific social network called The Yard. They expected people to organize their friends around the shared love of a soft drink. The truth is that communities are owned not by the companies that build them but by the people that hang out in them. You can build something wonderful, but you can't control the conversation. You can't throw a party and tell your guests that they can only talk about how great you are.

The other challenge for companies trying to behave more like people is that friends tend to be peers, with similar lives and interests. "Your brand is not my friend," wrote Alan Wolk a few years ago. That's because the brand is richer, more famous, and, while it loves talking to lots of people, a company isn't as interested in their partners as in themselves. You can't be a friend if you can’t listen.

At the same time, people have started to think of themselves as brands. "How is my brand?" an old boss of mine asked me, trying to find out if he was respected on the floor. "Make your life one giant networking event," suggests JobMetrix, an employment service. And Dan Schawbel of Personal Branding Blog explains, "You are the chief marketing officer for the brand called you, but what others say about your brand is more impactful than what you say about yourself."

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Language is powerful, so the more the equation of people = brand spreads, the more true it will be. It's not only language, though. Social platforms like Facebook and Twitter and YouTube almost require that we think of ourselves in this way.

Human beings are adaptive and able to shape themselves around the situations and relationships they are in moment by moment. I am not the same person at work as with my family, as with my friends. I keep certain thoughts unexpressed around my neighbor Dave because I know his politics, but I trumpet them with my like-minded friends. I brag about my son's athletic accomplishments more with my sporty friends than with my spazzy friends.

But our common social platforms blend all our chameleon-like micro-personas into one output. Sure, on Facebook it is possible create categories of people and manage who sees what - so no one in the work category sees my beach photos - but that ends when friends fit in more than one category and your lists aren't exactly reciprocal. It is impossible even to be conscious of all the variation in our interpersonal relationships; even many categories scrupulously managed can't mimic how we adjust in a conversation. So we censor ourselves and, like a brand, send one message to everyone.

Alternatively, we can do something that a company with a product to sell really can't: we can decide, like Popeye, I yam what I yam, prioritize relationships with people who like us at our most authentic, warts and all, be unconcerned about alienating those who don't, and let our "brand" be the sum of our natural behavior and thoughts. I am not for every taste, and I am fine with that, but I don't answer to shareholders. Or is that just my brand statement?

Consider my friend Mark Haskell Smith, a fiendishly witty novelist, whose Facebook status told this story: "Dude asked 'what are you doing to build brand identity through social media?' I said, 'Fuck you is what I'm doing.'" That he put this on Facebook suggests that he's both doing and eschewing. As are, perhaps, we all.

Matt Rosenberg is Vice President of Solutions, SAY Media

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