Nurture the cream of your social crop

If you don’t want your company to be the socially awkward kid in new world of communication between brands and consumers, make sure you look after your two-and-a-half percent, says Kiwi marketing guru Sarah O’Hagan.

In this scary new participation economy, consumers trust their peers more than companies or the critics, use online media to tell it like it is and expect your company to respond. And that’s changed the game when it comes to brand building, O’Hagan told yesterday’s Marketing Summit in Auckland.

“As you build brands you have to appeal to the 2.5 percent that care the most if you’re going to build the business. People want to be part of something that has cultural currency. The idea is do something spectacular for a few instead of something average. That’s what our top, most loyal customers will expect from us.”

This was exemplified by Nike, where O’Hagan spent six years in marketing and management in the US before becoming president of Gatorade in North America and now president of fitness chain Equinox.

“When I came from Nike the CEO and top leadership group knew the top five sneaker collectors in the world. They were the ones that knew what would be the next big shoe in the world.”

Knowing the consumers you want to engage with also means having the courage to walk away from those you don’t, she says. Gatorade put this into practice by narrowing a broad focus on “men aged 18-49 who have throats” to targeting high school age athletes, says Robb O’Hagan.

“If you’re a sports performance brand and people are sitting on the couch drinking Gatorade, that’s a problem. In April 2010 we looked at our social conversations and they were all related to hangovers. We realised the only way we’d turn this business around was if we went back to the core consumer. We said we had to walk away from the consumers who weren’t building the equity of the brand.”

The gold standard for success in the participation economy is on-demand car sharing app Uber, she reckons. The concept of drivers and passengers rating each other is one she believes will be widely adopted by other businesses and is one Equinox is considering for its trainers and gym users.

“[Uber is] really trying to think about how do we up the level of service we give, but also the passenger really respecting the driver. Think about how this meritocracy idea could play into your own businesses.”

O’Hagan also suggested companies set up social media command centres, an initiative pioneered at Gatorade. She said that helped change the conversation from hangovers to sports performance.

“Every hour of every day, [command centre staff]were looking at the conversations that were happening out there. and helping to get more of a following. It’s incredibly time consuming but it drives amazing results.”

Brands also needed to adopt an ‘always on’ mentality so they could constantly respond to customers, she said. “When Gatorade started we were that classic ’90s brand marketing model: the circus comes to town with the big tent that comes out with a campaign and then goes away. Now you have to be there for consumers at all times.”

And in an age when the lines between industries and businesses are blurring, she thinks it’s important companies play their own game

“When you think about categories and competitors, there aren’t any boundaries anymore. At Nike we were competing with footwear manufacturers. Now they’re competing with every brand. Brands seem to go backwards and forwards into each other’s space. You have to just say, ‘how do I serve my customers in the most appropriate way?'”

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