Branded: The Importance of Being Self-Aware

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Every year, companies sink huge amounts of money into their marketing campaigns in an effort to solidify brand awareness and recognition in the minds of the average consumer. From logos and colors to spokespeople and taglines, marketers dedicate a lot of resources toward the end goal of getting customers to favorably connect brand to business.

Brand awareness – we know it, we love it, and our customers need to have it. We have very concrete ideas about what our brand should be, and we want to make sure our customers do too.

But how often do we promote our own brand self-awareness? As marketers, it can be pretty easy to focus so much on how we want our customers to view us that we forget to take stock of how they actually do. McDonald’s recently provided us with a great example of why it’s important to understand not only the brand you want people to see, but also the brand you actually have.

A few weeks ago, the fast food giant initiated a Twitter campaign called #McDStories. The idea behind #McDStories was great; McDonald’s wanted to create and encourage the use of a Twitter hashtag that would allow their fans and followers to share heartwarming stories about their personal experiences with McDonanld’s. See, McDonald’s promotes themselves as a fun, quick restaurant where people of all ages can enjoy reliably delicious food. They’ve also been working hard lately to show that they’re environmentally sound and farm-friendly. This overall brand image that they’re striving to convey is an extremely positive one, and they were hoping their followers would embrace and enhance this brand they’ve worked to create.

But what they didn’t seem to take into account was how a lot of the public actually perceives the fast food chain. They became so wrapped up in their brand image that they neglected their brand self-awareness. They expected people to attach positive stories to the #McDStories hashtag. Instead, they received some super sized negativity, with tweets like “Hospitalized for food poisoning after eating McDonalds in 1989. Never ate there again and became a Vegetarian. Should have sued. #McDStories” and “#McDStories I lost 50lbs in 6 months after I quit working and eating at McDonald’s.”

McDonald’s may have received a lot of positive #McDStories as well, but of course it was the negative responses that garnered the real attention. It wasn’t long before many of the major web and print publications were reporting on the marketing backfire. Stories about the promotion ran on Forbes, The Huffington Post, The Los Angeles Times, and more.

McDonald’s was obviously hoping for a better outcome. (They officially pulled the hashtag just hours after releasing it, though some continue to post negative #McDStories even today.) They hoped for an outcome that reinforced the brand they try to promote. But I think if they would have taken the time to stop and assess how the general public actually views their brand, they might have been able to foresee this social strategy going awry.

To illustrate my point, I took an informal survey of my personal social media networks. I asked my connections to list the first five words that come to mind when they think of McDonald’s. Here’s what they came up with:

One of the most commonly mentioned words was “fries,” one that would probably sit just fine with the McDonald’s Corporation. The other most frequent words, however, are a little less thrilling; “greasy,” “unhealthy,” “fat,” “fried,” and “clogged” among them. Judging by this word cloud, there are a lot of people who don’t view McDonald’s as a great, easy alternative to a home cooked meal. They think of McDonald’s as unhealthy, unappetizing, and, to a certain extent, even dangerous.

That’s the brand image that McDonald’s has been fighting against for years. It’s one I’m sure they wish would go away, but it hasn’t, at least not yet. It’s no wonder #McDStories went sour.

I don’t mean to pick on McDonald’s. I believe most, if not all, companies exhibit a poor sense of self from time to time. Complete self-awareness is as difficult to achieve in business as it is in personal life; McDonald’s just happened to present a timely example. Those of us in marketing spend so much of our time and energy creating and promoting the perfect brand image, it becomes way too easy for us to forget that what we’re selling isn’t necessarily what people are buying.

I think this has always been the case with marketing. The brand that’s presented is rarely the same brand that’s actually perceived. This discrepancy has always existed; social media just makes it more obvious. Before the rise of social networks, marketers could publish creative material that reinforced the brand they were trying to create. It was received by the public, and there wasn’t really an easy way to learn if that feedback was positive or negative in terms of brand evaluation. Ten years ago, McDonald’s would have made #McDStories a campaign of television commercials where actual McDonald’s fans talked about their positive feelings for the fast food chain. The public might have had dubious feelings about the campaign, but as individuals, who would they tell? Certainly not the entire world.

But the game has changed. Social media gives the public a quick and easy way to share their thoughts about anything and everything, and the fact that McDonald’s actively encouraged their customers to participate, which is something companies should always strive to do with social media, in this case just made matters a little worse.  Had McDonald’s marketers taken more time to evaluate public opinion, they might not have chanced this particular hashtag campaign.

So yes, brand awareness is important. But brand self-awareness is just as vital to the success of a company’s marketing efforts. The rise of social media only makes it more important to understand how we’re being perceived. Understanding how the public views your organization will help you tackle the problem areas of that perception right off the bat and build a stronger brand that everyone can agree on.

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