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Social Media Brand Management

June 2, 2009

McDonalds, Russia, circa 1989

I was on business in Moscow in 1992 appreciating the historic changes Mikhail Gorbachev and Glasnost had brought to that country. Although there were novelties such as the very first McDonald’s, the Russians who were weary from a hard life were not so thrilled, since Glasnost really hadn’t changed their daily lives. There were still long lines for food. Everything seemed old and awash in grey and brown tones. Russian angst was real. Our guide told us an allegory that was circulating that summed up what the Russian people thought Glasnost had brought them.

Before Glasnost, they were like a dog that was muzzled and on a leash five meters long unable to reach the water dish ten meters away. Since Glasnost, the allegory went, the water dish has been moved a couple of meters closer–still out of reach–but the muzzle is off and the dog may bark all it wants.

That sort of describes how some brands are treating their customers in social media: their company culture hasn’t changed–nothing may change–but they are now “open” to hearing customer perspectives and opinions. Or maybe not.

Alexandra Samuel in her blog post for Harvard Publishing has written a very thoughtful perspective on what is happening to some major brands that try-on engagement and authenticity in social media. The title of the post is, Riding Social Media’s Trojan Horse. It should be required reading as it details how social media brings with it risk to brands that are not prepared culturally to handle consumer opinions and perspectives, and not seemingly willing to address those opinions and make changes to how they do business.

This shouldn’t be the case in higher education, particularly at a time when accreditation associations are all about assessment and student learning outcomes. Higher education brands should be well prepared to listen to students and alumni. Social media should be a natural place for colleges and universities to listen to the primary participants of social media: teenagers and young adults.

But those of us in higher education know better. Academic institutions are by nature slow to change. Institutional silos are well entrenched. Student and alumni feedback about what needs to change on our campuses is a tough sell.

When marketing hears from young alumni that the business office is dysfunctional, and that they won’t give to the institution because of how they were treated, how does a chief marketing officer foster change? When teaching evaluations say a tenured professor’s teaching is a disaster, what can be done? The challenge of forging change at an institution of higher learning is daunting.

That’s why it’s absolutely necessary in marketing higher education that a chief marketing or enrollment officer be politically situated with a visible leadership role on campus; to have relationships formed to get things done; to be as concerned about non-“marketing” aspects of the institutional brand as the strategies of advertising, publications and social media. Because let’s face it. The foundation of brand management is the organization itself.

Social media is not going away. It may look different years from now as traditional and social media morph to meet the market. But customer engagement will continue to increase in importance as new media continue to empower consumers, and hopefully motivate brands to adapt to new ways to do business.

Like the Russian dog and its owner, for brands that are not willing to truly engage their customers in a transparent way, social media may sound to them like a barking, howling dog that needs its muzzle to be put on again. Too late.

10 Comments leave one →
  1. bevinhernandez permalink
    June 9, 2009 1:50 PM

    I can’t say enough about this blog post. Thank you for writing this.

  2. June 10, 2009 11:56 AM

    indeed…great thoughts, Rick.

  3. Max permalink
    May 27, 2010 9:06 PM

    Hey, Rick. This is a really interesting article! I would like to use the picture at the top of this post for an AP European History final project about food in Europe in 1989 and shortly after. We need to have a full MLA citation and I was wondering if you happened to know the who took the photo. I’ve looked through the website given in the lower right corner but due to a language barrier (the website is in Russian), I can’t seem to get any results. If you could give me any information about the photo, that would be greatly appreciated! Thanks in advance!

    • Rick Hardy permalink
      May 27, 2010 9:56 PM

      Thank you.

      I don’t think the photo was in the Time Magazine article. I believe I linked the photo to that story for people who wanted more information about the first McDonald’s. Like you, I can’t find who took the photo. I found it on Google search, but didn’t find any credit given or copyright information with it. Sorry, I can’t be more helpful.

      • Max permalink
        May 31, 2010 3:08 PM

        Thank you anyway for looking!

  4. Randy permalink
    June 7, 2011 11:50 AM

    Just finished reading “Thank You Economy” by Gary Vanerchuk. Just when us marketers feel like we know something it all changes – life’s a university!

    • Rick Hardy permalink
      June 7, 2011 4:30 PM

      Isn’t that right. If we don’t keep up with the sea changes that are happening right before our eyes, we’ll fail to stay relevant. It’s a people economy in ways we’re still discovering. Thanks, Randy, for your comment.


  1. links for 2009-06-09 « innovations in higher education

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