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

By Mark Etingchap |

July 19, 2013 | 6 min read

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.

Brands could learn a thing or two from Mr Holland

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.


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