It can sometimes feel bittersweet being a brand marketer in a digitally driven world. Though technology makes it easier to reach our audiences in exciting and innovative ways, it also proves challenging as we cede control of a brand’s perception to our customers on the Internet.

Marketers long ago recognized that it’s impossible to spin a false narrative of a brand, especially now that customers are empowered to share their actual experiences on blogs or social media. Marketers are also learning to respect the digital medium’s ability to foster connectivity, and the imperative to create people-ready brands that engage with their respective audiences on their terms.

While many top brands are navigating the digital universe successfully, others can learn from those pacesetters on how to negotiate their online presence. So what brand characteristics do audiences seek and how can brands mature to become what “inhabitants” of the digital world are looking for?


The digital space was designed to connect people together. It’s open to everyone on equal terms, so it’s not surprising that your online audience tends to skew towards brands that encourage inclusivity. A terrifically recent example is the online reaction to the recent Supreme Court ruling on the legality of same-sex marriage.

Many brands were quick to react to that news by posting their support for the LGBT community on social media. In one standout example, MasterCard tweeted a “Priceless Surprises!” video in which a couple — Monica and Jeanette — were to be engaged right before being swept up on stage by Gwen Stefani at a live concert. MasterCard wasn’t alone as brands across social media posted their congratulations in rapid succession, earning many of them a great deal of positive free press, as well as the goodwill of their audiences.

This is in stark contrast to a popular, but less LGBT-friendly brand, Chick-fil-A. Following comments in June 2012 from then-COO Dan Cathy opposing same-sex marriage, the brand suffered constant ridicule on the web. Chick-fil-A social accounts were notably quiet on the topic of the Supreme Court’s ruling. Various media outlets and social users took notice, opening up the brand to criticism once more.

The lesson here is obvious: the digital space is a forward-thinking one, with a low bar for intolerance. By crafting your brand for inclusivity, you reap the benefits of progress and avoid the headaches of the mob.


The digital tools borne out of the Internet are designed to enlighten, not obscure. For connected customers, this means having the world’s information at their fingertips. This affords customers an easy way to uncover hidden truths about an organization, and has forced marketers to be honest in how they portray brands. But bear in mind, the new-world version of “a pen mightier than the sword” has given rise to an army of detractors that can engender stereotypes with negative rippling effects on the brand, on a global scale.

So how do marketers protect their brands against a customer base that may be taking its cues from misinformation? One word: transparency.

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Transparency is essential for building what every company wants from their customers — their trust. Customers can end up feeling deceived by brands that misrepresent themselves, or fail to defend against rumor and conspiracy. For many marketers and their brands, the principle of transparency can sometimes instill a feeling of dread. After all, it can be very uncomfortable to open up to the world and discuss organizational details that once were strictly on the “need to know” basis, but if you’re a business that is already grappling with negative perceptions, sharing may be one of the bravest and most rewarding things you can do.

A great case study for transparency in the digital space is the “Our Food, Your Questions” microsite from McDonald’s Canada. Faced with the terrible press on the quality of their food — such as the pink slime stories — McDonald’s Canada rolled out a multi-channel campaign, inviting the public to submit questions about their products and practices. Executives from the company responded to some questions via YouTube, offering a behind-the-scenes look at the company’s operations. One standout video answered the question “Why doesn’t my food look like the one in the pictures?” By taking the audience to a food artists’ photography studio, McDonald’s showed their audience that the ingredients used in the advertised burgers were the same as the ones used in a McDonald’s restaurant.

It was a risky maneuver for McDonald’s, but the bold decision to take on its critics was a true success. This approach was replicated in other markets, worldwide. To date, McDonald’s has answered more than 9,000 questions from customers directly through their microsite, setting the record straight and dispelling misconceived notions.


The final points I’d like to touch on relate to the power that digital has to transform conversations.

First, marketers must constantly remind themselves that the Internet is a collection of discussions, not just a broadcast medium. Social media, email, and other forms of digital marketing aren’t cheap broadcast channels — they’re communities made up of people, some of them your customers, who live, work, and speak on the same digital space as your organization does. As such, brands are expected to speak with their audience, not at them.

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Second, social media is by nature a 24-hour hangout place. The Internet has no off-switch, so it’s crucial when representing your business in the digital space that it must be made available in some way, at all times.

Why does all this matter? Well for starters, by engaging with your audience you demonstrate the value you place on their opinions. Businesses must treat online compliments and complaints with the same level of importance as offline feedback. You also show that your brand is reliable and is a business that respectfully listens and addresses concerns.

One great example of using digital to engage their audience is Dutch airline KLM. Followed by nearly 2,000,000 users, the company’s Twitter account works as part-marketing channel, part-customer service platform. KLM representatives, fluent in 14 languages, staff the account 24/7 to respond to customer complaints. The airline keeps customers in the know on response times to customers’ tweets by updating their Twitter header image every five minutes with a new wait time. Using Twitter in this fashion has afforded KLM the benefit of engaging with always-on customers in real-time and in a public way, displaying to the world how seriously KLM takes customer service.


Challenges and Rewards on Display

For many brands, the process of adjusting your characteristics to align with what’s expected in the digital medium can sometimes feel like a daunting task, but as you’ve seen with the examples in this piece, brands that fail to do so miss out on some wonderful opportunities to connect with their audiences and shape their brand narratives. By being inclusive, transparent, and engaging, your brand moves one step closer to winning the loyalty and trust of its online audience.