Is Your Brand Strategy So 20th Century?


If the 20th century will be remembered for being the “media age,” the 21st century, so far, will be remembered as the “social age.”  How brands are marketed and understood are different for each age.  In the “media age” brands were predominately marketed one to many — as in driven persistently to the consumer, often by large companies with outsize advertising budgets.  The one to many  framework was true of 20th century marketing whether or not an organization had a large advertising campaign or none at all.  The mindset for marketing a brand was “command and control” — keep tight control over the brand image, and export that image via advertising, well orchestrated promotional events, public relations, etc.

Today’s brands are increasingly marketed many to many — by word of mouth and cause-driven interactions.  No matter whether you are a fledgling start-up using guerrilla tactics or an established consumer brand, today your brand in large part is no longer dictated simply by the impression you seek to sell to your audience.  It develops based on how it is interpreted by the audience who, for one reason or another, has a need to engage and promote your brand, or not.

As branding has changed, so the approach to analyzing brand effect and sustainability must adapt. Below, we diagram the key differences in how brands are analyzed in the media and social ages, respectively.

We’ve discussed elsewhere in this blog and web site about how brands are cultural symbols and customer audiences sub-cultures.


In the media age, where the dominant form of marketing was one to many, the brand was conceived as an identity or image for the company. Consequently, a focus on brand analysis was geared toward the image the brand may have evoked for the customer. This line of thought implies certain questions a brand analysis and subsequent branding plan would ask about the interaction between brand and customer: Who likes it? What do they think about it or say about it? Where is it popular? When (in which instances) is it popular?

In the social age, the brand is increasingly marketed, and therefore created, many to many. That is, the organization itself is increasingly less in control of how the brand is presented and interpreted. This represents both a threat and an opportunity: a threat, because the organization has less control over its own brand; an opportunity, because the activity with respect to the brand across the customer audience opens a window to understanding of what is useful and powerfully symbolic and meaningful about the brand. This discovery, and the subsequent capitalization on this discovery in the form of more effective branding efforts, requires a form of brand research and analysis that is different from that which may have been effective in the media age. The social age asks different questions about brands — how the brand is being used by the audience, and why they are using the brand in the manner they are. To answer these questions, different methodologies must be used than were previously commonplace in the brand research practice. Today, participant observation techniques such as ethnography and conversation analysis are much more appropriate for understanding how to brand organizations and products than before. These methodologies are unique in their ability to understand how individuals and groups interpret, use, and respond to brands.

So, a 21st century approach to branding requires a shift in perspective on who owns branding.  It used to be an activity thought to be owned by the organization; now it is largely thought to be owned by the audience.  The organization then must see itself as an audience member, hopefully one that is highly influential and is consistently attempting to influence the audience’s conversation in a way that positions the “brand” optimally.  This requires a solid understanding of audience values, norms, and rituals. It requires tribal knowledge to the point that one can be viewed as a tribal leader.