Thoughts from a Marketing Chap

Mark Etingchap is the CCO (chief chap officer) of, enjoys cricket on a decent wicket, a good smoke, and anyone who is a good egg. You can find him on Twitter @Marketing_Chap and

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19 July 2013 - 9:00am | posted by | 17 comments

Brands - it's time to stop being faceless and start showing character on social media

Brands could learn a thing or two from Mr HollandBrands could learn a thing or two from Mr Holland

Brands are rather splendid things, aren’t they chaps? Brands inspire loyalty. Brands create excitement. Brands convey complicated and subtle messages that experts are paid enormous sums to write about in convincing-sounding strategy documents. For all of their amazing qualities, however, brands rather fall down when it comes to the simple act of conversation.

Until relatively recently, this was of little importance. As late as 2007 brands existed only as something for consumers to react to, identify with, and hopefully remember. The rise of Twitter and the introduction of the Facebook page changed brands in a fundamental and still largely unrecognised way, however. Brands now talk.

Social media accounts fronted by faceless, disembodied logos are now commonplace, but some essential questions appear to have been missed off before companies launched into this unprecedented form of communication. Are customers interested in what brands have to say? And if so, do they want to talk back?

The honest answer to both of these questions is a resolute ‘not really.’ Despite herculean efforts from community managers everywhere, who have plied their audiences with endless contests, promotions and viral videos, engagement with brands on social media is rarely more than shallow. According to a recent YouGov poll, social media advertising is actually more likely to annoy than endear. All in all, a poor showing for brands, chaps.

One must not be too hard on the blighters, however. When it comes to social engagement, brands are hamstrung from the start. As exceedingly valuable, but fragile assets, brands must be handled with caution. Brands can take decades to hone and perfect, and yet can be undone with a single ill-judged tweet. It is therefore no surprise that talking brands tend to remain mute on subjects other than their own virtues, products, or industry awards.

The result, however, is that brands are limited conversationalists. Ask a brand to recommend a decent Mayfair bistro, comment on the latest Paris fashions, or extemporise on whether England should select a second spin bowler, and it will be unequal to the task. Small talk is awkward for brands, who by their very nature need to remain ‘on message.’ When filling out invitations for your next soirée or dinner party, one would therefore be well-advised to give brands a miss.

The prattle of everyday conversation may be banal, but it is a vital ingredient in all human social interaction. Inquiring about a chap’s health or agreeing that the weather has been beastly hot of late paves the way for a deeper meeting of minds later on. Imagine how one’s social stock would plummet if chit chat was off the menu and instead one could talk only of oneself? Pariah status would soon ensue. I dare say, one would eventually be turned out of every decent club in SW1. Talking only of oneself, from a community-building point of view, is a blatant non-starter.

Brand engagement on social media is therefore in dire need of serious re-thinking, but it need not be jettisoned altogether. Brands can still find their niche on social media, but to do so they require a new extension that would allow them to engage with the public in a less antisocial fashion. What they need is personality.

An early example of this branding with a human face is currently being pioneered by none other than the Kingdom of the Netherlands. Not content to be merely ‘more exciting than Belgium’ (after all, who isn’t?) our Dutch chums have introduced a character known as ‘Mr Holland’. A lithesome chap resplendently dressed in orange and topped by an unruly mop of blonde hair, Mr Holland writes a blog, tweets, and poses for photographs at personal appearances. He also chats, tells jokes, and weighs up his options for a holiday in Spain. I have not yet had the pleasure, but I would happily share a restorative or two with Mr Holland should the opportunity ever arise (to find out the name of his tailor, if nothing else). Fortunately for my liver, there are far too few other brands I could say the same for.

Complimentary as I am of Mr Holland’s social media efforts, I would argue the concept could be taken much further. Well-designed social media personas, kept slightly separate from the main brand, can safely make interesting off-topic statements, engage in normal conversations, and perhaps even forge genuine communities based on real friendship. Like Mr Holland, a character can have personality, express genuine interest in others, and bring a much needed frisson to his social media output. A social media character could perhaps even become an influential opinion-maker, shaping the thoughts of potential customers in a way no mere brand could ever aspire to. Who knows, with enough effort he might even become a monthly columnist in a respectable publication such as The Drum?

Actually, chaps, best scratch that last remark. Overexcitement and all that. I dare say, such a scenario is much too farfetched to actually happen, isn’t it?

Mark Etingchap is the CCO (chief chap officer) of His column will appear here monthly.


19 Jul 2013 - 09:47
heidi59456's picture

Great post! Thanks Chap. What are your thoughts on large brand identities? Would you suggest that instead of having a "logo" for the Twitter handle, you see an employee face? Are there any UK brands that you think do this humanising very well?

Look forward to the regular column!

19 Jul 2013 - 09:55
Marketing_Chap's picture

@heidi59456 Many thanks for your kind words, chapette!

An employee face has advantages, as at least employees are not hampered by the problems brands face as discussed above, but I dare say they bring many more new problems to the table. The first and foremost is that employees, no matter how loyal, eventually leave. Will they take their influence and following with them? A disaster waiting to happen.

I always advocate brands find a social media identity that can speak as a person, but is not the brand nor an employee. Not an easy task, but the prize is great!

19 Jul 2013 - 10:01
lenar10528's picture

Genius and on the money as always chap. I offer you a heartfelt congratulations dear boy.

19 Jul 2013 - 10:10
Marketing_Chap's picture

@lenar10528 Awfully kind, old top! Many thanks.

19 Jul 2013 - 11:09
maoam19407's picture

Thanks for this post, however, I do not agree that a logo is faceless. The logo holds as much personality as the brand allows it too, which in most cases is none. The empowerment that a direct communication from a global twitter account is huge but brands fail to utilise it. Ultimately, I think everyone forgot that social media is about 1-2-1 relationships, not big audiences. Marketing activity which influences 1 person is more powerful than activity which reaches millions but impacts on nobody.

19 Jul 2013 - 11:26
Marketing_Chap's picture

@maoam19407 Many thanks for your well-thought-out comment, old plum. I'm afraid I meant the term 'faceless' in the literal sense, however. Most logos are faceless in the sense that they are not in fact faces. I would argue that this is a barrier to the natural flow of conversation - especially if that conversation is constrained by a vigourous corporate communication policy. What I mean to say is, the 1-2-1 communication that you rightly extol is not of interest to most consumers except in rare occasions. Changing the way brands communicate is a vital step that must be taken or most brands on social media will continue to be of little interest to most users.

19 Jul 2013 - 11:51
danny15092's picture

Top hole old boy. Spiffing article of the very first order. I am looking forward to more rather splendid musings from you. I once heard a brand manager chappy say that he would rather have 1,000 people actively talking and arguing about his brand than 100,000 passively consuming his logo or advertising. Jolly good show old bean. Toodle pip. By the way, in this tropical weather do you think it would be acceptable for us creative types to undo a button and loosen our ties (when there is no sign of a client of course)? I saw a couple of cads wearing shorts in the office yesterday. What is the world coming to? Next thing you know we'll all be wearing sandals! Dashed bad form I say.

19 Jul 2013 - 14:24
Marketing_Chap's picture

@danny15092 Many thanks for your kind remarks, old top! This brand manager you refer to sounds like a wise old coot. No doubt a solid success in every whatever he turned his hand to.

This exceedingly clement spell is, as you say, giving chaps everywhere a regrettable sense of license. It will not do. Do forgive, but I would rather not discuss the use of sandals in public.

Pip pip!

20 Jul 2013 - 03:45
Webse19508's picture

Excellent and informative on so many levels and I couldn't agree more. Just recently I flew to Los Angeles on American Airlines. I'm not much of a flyer so I was thrilled when we landed, so I tweeted a big thank u to AA for a great flight (which it was). Before I was even off the plane I received a response thanking me and wishing me a pleasant weekend. It put a big smile on my face, and I loved the personal touch. It absolutely resonated with me. Congrats on your column my dear friend.

21 Jul 2013 - 13:49
Marketing_Chap's picture

@Webse19508 Many thanks, old chum, for your congratulations and informative anecdote. Always bracing to hear accounts of social media being used properly.

23 Jul 2013 - 09:06

Thank you very much for these kind words about me. I'd love to share a cold Heineken with you while discussing my chances to become a columnist for The Drum ;-) By the way, my suit was made by the Dutch designer Christian Lagerwaard. Shall I order one for you?

23 Jul 2013 - 13:00
Marketing_Chap's picture

@meetm48226 Frightfully kind of you, chap, to weigh in with your thoughts on my piece. If anything further proof of the concept, I say.

Sadly I think I am forced to decline your kind offer of an orange suit. Being English I lack the sort of glowing complexion that allows you to carry it off so well. Perhaps something in a traditional tweed?

23 Jul 2013 - 14:10
ruthn12247's picture

Chaps!! I too agree with Mr Mark Etingchap with regards to the importance of brands becoming less soulless and using social media (ineffectively) simply for the sake of it. If you're going to do social media, then do it properly and commit to it as opposed to being a half-arsed attempt at being au fait with contemporary marketing techniques. Bring character and breathe life into your tweets/posts/blogs, otherwise what is the point? To engage means to connect, and to connect in an authentic, people-orientated manner.

A brand can too often masquerade as a company that truly cares about their consumers, proven by the relentless amount of garbage put out through their social media channel, just for the sake of it; this manufactured information, including jolly competitions and You Tube videos, cannot fool the social-media savvy consumer of today; more that this falseness can actually have the reverse effect. Agreeing with the main chap himself, human social interaction is made up from all kinds of chat; not just business-to-consumer ‘informative' spiel. We don't force day to day conversation (well, not always), so why do brands sometimes patronise their consumers by doing exactly this online?

We may not be able to recommend a decent Mayfair bistro, but we can certainly point out to our online audience Stoke-on-Trent's best pubs and curry houses, and even tell you who Mark Hughes' latest signings are. We do this because we're interested, and our passion about general ‘stuff' is authentic, and hopefully open up a two-way channel to really interesting conversations.

From your newest chapette!!

26 Jul 2013 - 16:03
Marketing_Chap's picture

@ruthn12247 Many thanks, chapette! No doubt the denizens of Staffordshire will soon be eating out of your hand. Or a curry house you recommend, rather.

24 Jul 2013 - 00:20

Like children, I believe brands should 'be seen and not heard.'

Can you stretch such personas to business, enterprise and government markets? Or is that a brand too far?

As a marketing professional I have often worried that our industry has gotten far too ahead of itself.

The only people who should talk about brands are marketers and their executives. Everyone else shouldn't be talking about brands, or even using the word 'brand', but rather talk about quality, reputation, innovation, experiences... Yes these are all brand attributes, but I really think the marketing industry has failed when everyone else (even my mum) talks about brands.

Your idea of personas is intriguing - especially when I consider that a persona wrote this opinion piece. But how far can this be taken? Perhaps an answer can be found at Air NZ who developed 'Rico' as part of an integrated campaign for the introduction of new aircraft and services; and subsequently killed the character off, (for real) in a social media version of Cluedo.

26 Jul 2013 - 16:06
Marketing_Chap's picture

@s_powell This Rico chap is new to me, old stick. Many thanks for the heads up.

My advocacy of personality for brands is meant specifically for social media, although there are obvious uses of similar methods in other media forms. I merely wanted to point out that traditional brands and conversational social media platforms are not a good match.

There, I've responded to a chum from Australia without mentioning the cricket, haven't i?

Oh bother.

31 Jul 2013 - 16:11

I like the sentiment of a brand being seen and not heard, but I question how practical this actually is in today's media fragmented world. Conversations happen, you can choose to join them or not.

However a "brand" chooses to behave across social media channels, and whichever person / persona / mascot they choose, it's probably wise to first find out and assess how the target population wish to engage with that company.

As a first step this will likely inform how the brand should "go-to-market" in the social space.

For example, Dell use social channels extremely well for handling customer service, which is a "corporate" face. They could equally extend that corporate face by personalising each helpful tweet with the name of the service centre operative that handled it. Once a faceless profile, now a conduit for the entire service centre of staff, and it won't matter when staff move on.

Equally, if the channel is to be used for publicity, then maybe a "character" is better. It all comes back to the nature of the businesses and the brand. For Disney Mickey Mouse could be an obvious spokesperson, but for Sainsbury's in days gone past it might have been better to use Jamie Oliver.

Either way, I do believe people are wise enough to know that a voice behind the logo is still going to be a person, although sadly a fairly junior member of the team by today's standards.

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