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Social media has been with us for a while now, but until recently it seemed that many in the business world had failed to grasp the true power of the social medium and were largely confused as to how best to embrace the phenomenon in any meaningful or useful fashion.

“Should we have a Facebook page” or “who’s going to be interested in talking about X product online” would be fairly typical responses to any attempt to turn the conversation to such matters. Of course, some ‘cult’ status brands have made some inroads via this approach due to their ability to naturally galvanize consumers into self-assembling groups of slightly fanatical ‘advocates’. This was happening any way, it’s just that social platforms helped these people to connect with each other in simpler ways without geographic restriction therefore increasing momentum.

All of this somewhat misses the point to a certain extent.

If you’re looking for some pointers as to the true power of social media and a hint of how marketing, or rather, business will look in the coming years, you need to look no further than the recent, startling announcement by advertising giant Pepsi Co. that it would pull its entire $20M US Super bowl advertising budget and dump the lot into a huge social media campaign. Yes, you read that right, the whole $20M.

The campaign sees Pepsi giving away the entire sum to worthy causes – causes suggested by guess who? Yes, you, the public. The full details can be found here http://www.netimperative.com/news/2010/february/pepsi-ditches-super-bowl-tv-ads-for-20m-social

Now, that’s a pretty seismic event. In the world of advertising, few slots offer a larger captive audience than the US Super Bowl, meaning that 30 second ad slots go for up to $2M a time. This is an incredibly bold move by Pepsi – who I guess have deep enough pockets to give such a thing a try in the first place – and maybe there’s a certain shock factor to the whole thing which will help to propel this particular campaign forward, but, looking beyond the headline, it’s worth thinking about what’s actually happening here. Pepsi are effectively exploring different ways to create exposure and ‘brand equity’. Rather than spend the cash on flashy adverts in a slightly underhand attempt to subconsciously influence the masses in a single sitting (i.e. traditional advertising) they are in fact engaging people consciously on a one to one basis and – it has to be said – doing and awful lot of GOOD in the process.

Self-serving, admittedly, but the end result is the same. The money gets spent, people ‘benefit’ and therefore Pepsi gains kudos, masses of ‘free’ exposure and lots of those lovely warm fuzzy brand association-type feelings that all brands ultimately strive for.

So there we have it. Maybe we’ve just witnessed the birth of a whole new advertising model. Admittedly it’s one that’s been gestating for some time, but now it’s here, will things ever be quite the same again?

What if ALL advertisers decide to dump their budgets into building orphanages and healing the sick? Sadly I can’t see that happening any time soon, but maybe, just maybe we as consumers might start to favour brands who spend their budgets in a slightly more ethical and responsible manner than chopping down acres of rainforest and subsequently posting it in pulped and luridly printed form through our letterboxes against our will? I guess time will tell, but to me it feels like there’s something afoot here that isn’t going to go away quietly. Watch this space.

TOYOTA APOLOGY

As if all that wasn’t enough, last week supplied a second ‘fall of your chair’ social media moment when Jim Lentz, president of Toyota USA, appeared on the companies YouTube channel to apologize in person over the recent ‘sticking pedal’ recall debacle. You can see the whole thing for yourself here. http://www.youtube.com/user/ToyotaUSA#p/c/9FC450C0F2BFE90B/2/ZCb2dEFBq7I

Let’s sit back and examine what just happened here. Things are moving so fast in this space that there’s a real danger that we could all get a bit ‘yeah, so what’ about this. This is the PRESIDENT of a major international manufacturing company apologizing IN PUBLIC and IN PERSON for problems within the business and offering sincere assurances that the issues are being taken seriously and addressed.

Not only that, but the medium chosen to offer this apology? Not television, but YouTube, a social media platform. I don’t know about anyone else, but I think that’s an incredibly brave and forward thinking move by TOYOTA and presents the company as a very in-touch, human and caring organization. You’d be lucky to get a letter of apology from most CEOs – let alone a personal statement on YouTube and if there’s one thing that today’s consumers crave it’s power.

 

We want our voices to be heard. We want to know that ‘they’ are paying attention and that they are responding to our needs. The fastest (and possibly only) way for brands to build real equity in today’s marketplace is to enter into exactly this kind of two-way dialog with consumers. Treat us as equals, partners and respected individuals with opinions that matter and we will flock to you in droves. But disappoint or mislead us at your peril, for, thanks to social media, we now have the tools to tear down and destroy what took years of toil and effort to build, in the blink of an eye.

Oh and one final thing, don’t break our guitars, ok?

Or we might just tell 7,691,614 people. And counting.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5YGc4zOqozo

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