Brands and Twitter

by Robin Grant in News Google+


So after being on the front page on Marketing the week before last, this week we’ve hit the pages of Campaign, with our inclusion in a feature article about, you guessed it, Twitter:

Three years into its existence, the recent media frenzy around celebrity Twitterers, including Stephen Fry and Jonathan Ross, and Barack Obama’s successful use of the medium in the run-up to the US election, has seen the popularity of the “microblogging” site increase 27-fold in 12 months.

Advertisers could learn a lot from celebrity Twitterers using the site to shape their personal branding, creating a close, one-on-one relationship with their fans without constantly filtering their thoughts through a PR sieve.

Robin Grant, the managing director of the social media agency We Are Social, which advises Fry on his use of Twitter, explains: “The advice we gave to Stephen centred on being himself and having genuine conversations with people. It’s the same for brands. It’s about being human, showing your real personality and allowing people to connect with you on an emotional level.”

The article then gets quite bizarre, with Flo Heiss, the creative partner at Dare giving this advice about who should sit behind a brand’s account:

It could be a real person, such as a receptionist, or character made up by yourself

How about an imaginary friend who’s a receptionist, Flo? On to David Bain, an ‘internet marketing consultant’:

it’s cleverer when you don’t anthropomorphise it. What if an inanimate object was to Tweet, for example?

Why is it cleverer David? And what would it say? Amelia Torode, managing partner at VCCP:

It has to be a friendly, chatty brand. A brand such as Coca-Cola would be too large in its entirety. You need to work less at a higher-brand level and go down to the actual campaigns or smaller brands under the umbrella in order to start up the conversation.

Not quite as unhinged as Flo and David admittedly, but I’d point to the examples of brands like Burger King, Southwest Airlines, Whole Foods, Starbucks, JetBlue and even VCCP’s client O2, who are having meaningful and useful conversations at the higher-brand level. As usual, our friend Faris Yakob talks sense:

Previously we had a model of buying attention from media companies. Now we’ve got direct relationships so we have to earn that attention – we have to earn it by being entertaining, useful and also nice.

To be honest, there is no ‘right approach’, but there are some general principles that apply (as expressed by myself and Faris above) and then there is the hard won experience at the coalface, learning what works and what doesn’t, that brands doing it themselves (and the agencies like ourselves helping them) have acquired. Most importantly your approach should be built around, yes, you guessed it again, the business objectives you’re trying to achieve.

This diagram from Fallon’s Aki Spicer of six different potential participation strategies brands could use is a useful thought starter (each of which of course might be used in combination or not at all), but even the approaches I deliberately ridiculed above could be valid in the right circumstances. Fictional characters can work really well as part of a campaign as VCCP’s own Compare the Meerkat work shows, and I’m sure at least one of Zappos’ receptionists is on Twitter. Even inanimate objects might have their place – in fact I’ve been trying to persuade Kew Gardens to get their plant life on Twitter for a while now.

But deciding on a strategy is only the first and easiest step. The hard work is the day after day of micro-interactions with real people, and striking the right balance between the opportunities and risks presented by having a real person as the voice of the brand, which I touched upon in the hotly debated post on learning to speak human. David Armano brilliantly investigates this dynamic in The Age of Brandividualism and his recent follow-up, Battle of the Brands (both of which are required reading here at We Are Social towers):

For each brand on Twitter, there’s an individual (or individuals) behind that effort. It’s both business and personal. The two have become one. The tactic comes from a fundamental truth when it comes to the social spaces on the Web. People want to talk to other people. They want transparency. They want to know who they are talking to.

The potential reward of course, is the ability to spread surprise and delight, turn negative word of mouth into positive and to really engage people with your brand at an emotional level. There is no greater prize…

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  • Ciarán

    “everyone hear” – everyone here, obviously. This is why I'm now going to bed or my conversation will become incomprehensible.

  • Robin Grant

    I don't know – but I can tell you Robin doesn't get much sleep either 😉

  • Mel Exon

    The phrase 'learning to speak human' keeps coming back to me reading all of this. Surely Twitter simply gives a brand a channel and a chance to show it can?

    How you go about it is clearly crucial. Useful, entertaining, nice (Faris' oft repeated mantra for earned media) are good watch words, without doubt.

    However, any brand – if only it chose to be – could be all of those things in any interaction with its audience. The difference with Twitter and a key part of what makes it the crack cocaine of communication right now (addictive; likely to induce a certain amount of narcissism & vertigo), is the fact that it combines 'one to one' with 'one to many' in such a unique way. Engaging with people personally, yet in public, offers a brand the chance to accelerate perception in its favour. Somewhat sadly, a brand or corporation behaving in a human and approachable way still reeks of the new and is noteworthy. This reminds me of a favourite quote from the cluetrain manifesto, the topic of a hotly debated post here from Robin earlier this month:

    “In just a few more years, the current homogenized “voice” of business – the sound of mission statements and brochures – will seem as contrived and artificial as the language of the 18th century French court.”

    Several years after the cluetrain manifesto was written, if Twitter encourages a few more brands to step out of their corporate straitjackets to properly engage with and solve the problems of individuals, surely this should be a cause for celebration.

    It will be fascinating to see what happens as Twitter shakes down and matures into the mainstream over the coming months. To Aki's pragmatic & wise point, which brands really have it in them to sustain the potentially herculean task of managing a brand's micro blogging presence on an ongoing basis? How many will really think through what they can most compellingly offer in this space? And I'd add, how will brands, or the rest of us for that matter, cope with the surge in numbers and cut through the accompanying noise?

    Very simply, when an audience responds to this type of interaction with a brand, ultimately, if not immediately, the brand owner must find a way. A (potentially rich & wonderful) Pandora’s box has been opened…

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  • nrieke

    Wow what a great list of replies on this post – I think you are really on to something. Agree with most, except John. As Twitter is opt-in, everyone can chose to follow or leave the brand alone. That is the beauty about it. And for “not wanting a conversation” – well in many cases it might just be information or listening to what they are saying – e.g. media brands. Looking at celebrities – I think they do see themselves as “human brands” behaving just like it – and are great examples for the more virtual ones. From my pov: it is a matter of time, we still do not know if this will be of any value in 24 months – but if brands dont look out they might also miss out on this. As I am based in Germany I just put a post together for my blog ( and there is almost no interesting written stuff in German. It is mostly US- or UK-based Twitterers and Media commenting on the medium and the brands using it. From our perspective: way too early to have a final view on it.

  • James Whatley


    Very Good.

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  • Ciaran

    “a key part of what makes {Twitter} the crack cocaine of communication right now (addictive; likely to induce a certain amount of narcissism & vertigo)”

    That quote has made this entire post/comment thread worthwhile (not that it wasn't already) – brilliant!

  • Matt Rhodes

    I agree with you, Chris and some others that there really is no right and wrong here. The great thing about Twitter (and other emerging communications tools) is that things are moving quite quickly. The growth over the last year has been quite phenomenal (data from shows that visits to Twitter grew 1,227% in 2008) and the mass media interest in the UK has seen a sharp rise in the last few weeks alone. This means many things, but it mainly means more users, and different users. Twitter is a medium that is changing rapidly before our very eyes. As a social network, it is really defined by the people in it and the connections they make, so as the number of users grows and changes so the role it plays, the behaviours that are acceptable on it and the uses that brands can make of it will change.

    This means a couple of things:

    1) That your best strategy is probably to keep things simple (often the best strategy in so many things). Be open, honest and truthful online. Act in the way you expect those who follow you to act. So be yourself, upload a photo, follow people back who follow you, talk honestly and openly, respond to (at least some) people who message you, respond to people who talk about you, develop your own voice. So rather than developing a long and complicated Twitter strategy, make a simple one. One that centres on people and being yourself. This makes it easy to replicate and to get more people across your business on Twitter. Please let's not start making up characters if you're looking for actual, real, ongoing engagement. Your people are your best representation of your brand after all. Get people at all level to join and trust them to get it right (with maybe some guidelines and a bit of coaching and knowing that if things go wrong it's not the end of the world because…)

    2) We don't need to worry too much about getting it 100% right first time. In a medium that is changing so quickly as Twitter – where each group of new members uses it in different ways and subtly changes the experience of all other users – we can afford to be innovative. Try new things. Work out how best to use Twitter to communicate with customers not by building long and complicated strategies but by setting up some core aims and principals and then just trying it out. I'm a big believer that brands should experiment more and Twitter offers the best kind of environment to do this. It's rapidly changing so you can change with it. Try things and if they fail try something else. And if you're doing this as yourself people will forgive you. You're playing according to the same rules as them, even if you are representing a brand and have clear brand and business objectives for using Twitter.

    Finally, Twitter really is about one thing: voyeurism. That's why it's best to be yourself. People are more interested in hearing the same message and thoughts from an individual than they are from a brand or a fabricated character. That's also why Twitter really is a threat to traditional media, and really will let brands and celebrities take more control over their own image. But that probably deserves a different blog post.


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  • Guy Stephens

    Great post with lots of interesting comments and themes from a wide source of people. But for me, because that's all I am qualified to talk about is how I use it, I am @guy1067 and this represents both me as an individual and me as the Online Help Manager at Carphone Warehouse. Wearing both hats you see me both as a person, and as a representative of CPW and how I engage with customers via twitter on a daily basis. Just because I am at work doesn't mean I engage with other people in a different way. Just because I wear a business hat doesn't mean I suddenly forget what bad customer service is, or how to say 'sorry, that experience wasn't great for you'.

    I love twitter, I think it's simplicity offers a huge amount of scope to anyone who is prepared to make the leap of faith and use it. I am still learning my way, learning how it can be used to communicate with other people, learning how it can be used within a work context, learning and seeing…

    For me, the key is simply to be yourself no matter which hat you are wearing. The challenge is to try to understand your customer (they are people also after all), what motivates them and then find a way to empathise with them, in what is simply another channel for engagement, then hopefully you are getting somewhere (wherever that might be). Twitter, together with the increasing ubiquity of smartphones, has given me a fantastic platform to provide real time customer service. It's the start of something simply beautiful…I hope I can live up to the challenge!

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  • mediation

    how not to do it… (although it's certainly on brand)

    “Ryanair can confirm that a Ryanair staff member did engage in a blog discussion. It is Ryanair policy not to waste time and energy corresponding with idiot bloggers and Ryanair can confirm that it won't be happening again. Lunatic bloggers can have the blog sphere all to themselves as our people are far too busy driving down the cost of air travel”.

    full story here:

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  • the_anvil

    like those annoying ads where people shout out from the tele about NO MONEY DOWN, or pop-ups that expand to cover the entire screen you're reading, i simply push 'mute' or 'close' or 'block' when brands cross the line in my engagement with the media that I choose

    the sooner brands accept that they aren't in control of media consumption – the better they will be able to access this space for their needs. Twitter is no exception!

    but i think this is difficult for most corporate marketing types to understand, hence their confusion


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  • Holycow

    Good piece of self promotion again Robin well done. And as usual everyone is saying the same thing.

    So here is my take for what its worth.
    1) Successful business is predicated on being useful and interesting.
    2) Political and social conventions changes over time. There is a bifurcation occurring fueled by technology which gives people the illusion that they are now in control. The big joke is we always were. We just didn't realize it. And, we are not really prepared to change the big things.
    3) Brands are constructed by us and shaped by context. Brands wouldn't survive if we ignored them. Companies would still remain but become irrelevant and their products would remain unsold – like the car industry today.
    4) Brands don't Twitter – people employed by companies do.
    5) Twitter is no different from any other conversation – its just a platform to do so.
    6) Twitter can be used by companies for either customer service or advertising. Smart cpmanies will do both. The successful ones will be useful and interesting.

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  • Amelia

    Robin – love the fact that the Campaign piece sparked such a brilliant discussion (on a side note, I assume that the article is up on the Brand Republic site but I bet that there are very few comments there)
    Its always funny reading a quote that you said on the phone down on paper and thinking as I read it that I'm not sure I agree with it (!) When I said “friendly” or “chatty” brands, I think what I really meant was brands that are commitment to having genuine conversations.
    I loved HolyCow's comments, I think that he summed it up perfectly, however in addition I think that smart brands will find short-term as well as long-term ways to use Twitter, for example for more sales promotional or competition type ideas as well as more on-going conversations.
    Good stuff. Thank you for blogging this!

  • Robin Grant

    Hey Amelia

    I’m feeling guilty now – I obviously took a deliberately confrontational approach (as a tactic to be interesting, but clearly not nice) above, and it was only after I wrote my post that I saw your quote in NMA’s article about Brands and Twitter (behind a pay wall, but typed below):

    Twitter is a conversation, but the conversation must be worth having. People are looking for rules, but while there are different ways a brand can use Twitter, there’s no right or wrong way

    Anyway – I'm glad you found the post and comments worthwhile…

  • Robin Grant

    And for anyone wanting to see Guy in action, have a read of Anjali Ramachandran's post about her experiences with Carphone Wharehouse….

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  • Robin Grant

    and also his Confessions of a corporate tweeter article on Econsultancy

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  • facebook-1270999082

    Most companies fail to realize Twitter's full potential as a market engagement platform. Brand-squatted accounts remain an issue for many companies like domain registration. For those that are on board, many more are largely tepid accounts with limited activity and interactivity (76% of accounts tweet infrequently). Even more telling is how companies apply currently traditional marketing practices to this new media…

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  • Lucy

    I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don't know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


  • Swing Trading

    Interesting post. I have made a twitter post about this. Others no doubt will like it like I did.

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