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Sunday MBA

Social media can increase customer interest in your brand — if used wisely.

Sunday MBA provides ideas on running better businesses and succeeding in the modern workplace, this week from MIT Sloan Management Review.

In this era of economic uncertainty, buyer apathy and product obsolescence, companies need to take a fresh look at how consumers view their brands and what helps a brand compete better in the marketplace. For the average company, it is hard to achieve the level of brand differentiation that standouts like Apple and Nike enjoy.

The key problem, according to academic researchers and industry practitioners, is that many companies have become disengaged from customers by relying on cost-saving, self-service technology solutions. These tend to dehumanize the customer experience and distance the firm from consumers.


Fortunately, technology, often seen as the bane of customer relationship marketing, may also be its savior. The rapid advent of social media tools provides a ready mechanism to engage customers, talk to them, soften a brand’s image, and present a friendly and accessible “face” to the public.

Research shows that when brands are given an emotional identity through advertising and social media tactics, consumers tend to attribute human traits to them, a phenomenon known as anthropomorphism. They may view a given brand as “cool” and “fun,” another as “kind” and “sensitive,” and yet another as “snobbish” and “aloof.” Brands that have been humanized in a positive way have been found to enjoy more favorable consumer attitudes and command higher loyalty than those that do not.

Consider the upmarket hospitality chain Kimpton Hotels. To portray a warm, friendly, and empathetic brand image, Kimpton created a social listening desk, a panel of employees whose principal job is to follow what customers say on social media and find novel ways of attending to their needs.

Yet when it comes to brand anthropomorphism, some inadvertent and negative consequences are possible. An organization that conducts its business in a highly methodical and clinical manner can develop a brand image of being cold, impersonal, or ruthless. Another brand’s personality may be stodgy, boring, and colorless, as the company may not have made the necessary investment in its marketing communications and customer engagement.


Firms can improve their brand perceptions and engage customers on social media by making a personal connection with them through upbeat, light-hearted posts, direct replies, and witty remarks. Taco Bell once seemed a faceless, even dour brand, but now it is perceived as positively cool on social media and has garnered a large, youthful following. It projects a carefree, fun personality by using short, funny tweets and doesn’t shy away from engaging in friendly banter with followers.

How do you avoid risks and capture the opportunities from brand personification? Here are three key considerations:

■  Use social media to articulate your brand’s personality and core values, which are often most effective in influencing prospective customers and converting them from casual to loyal buyers.

■  Create attention-grabbing content using visuals, wit, and humor to engage brand followers, but be careful about treading the boundary between what seems clever and funny and what can be deemed as controversial and insensitive.

■  Understand that even on social media, less is more. Too much content and too-frequent updating can be off-putting and devolve into noise, so it is best to strike a balance and develop a positive and engaging image for the brand.

This article draws from “The Risks and Rewards of Brand Personification Using Social Media” by Jay I. Sinha, associate professor of marketing at the Fox School of Business of Temple University. Copyright 2015 MIT Sloan Management Review. All Rights Reserved.