IDEO: Five Companies That Mastered Social Media's Branding Potential

Viral video. Selective tweets. Consumer reviews. How a few corporate marketers are getting a leg up online.

This is the next piece in our PATTERNS series, written by IDEO. Read more from the series here.

Social networks can breathe new life into old brands by enabling companies to build collaborative relationships with consumers like never before. But what's a corporate giant to do when no one wants to follow it on Twitter or be its friend on Facebook?

Many firms struggle to answer that question. Yet turning even mundane products like toothpaste or tampons into talking points doesn't have to be difficult. The trick, a few innovators have found, is to let consumers lead the conversation. Rather than strip a brand of its valuable identity, relinquishing control of messaging to the masses can have a rejuvenating effect.

Here's how a few established companies, from Ford to CBS, have used new media to their advantage.


Designing for social media

1. Go where the people are.
Don't try to build a community out of thin air. Tap in to existing communities, compliment, and contribute. If you are not a customer magnet, identify nodes in the network where people are?and draw them toward you. Let individuals take center stage. Focus on people over brand or offerings. Empower both your employees and the public to speak their minds, without dictating how.

2. Have a legitimate purpose.

Anchor your brand to your core values and character, while allowing it to be multidimensional and dynamic. Connect to causes and phenomena that truly resonate with your organization and its culture.

3. Be real.
Relationships are two-way. You must listen and respond to people?and acknowledge the good, the bad, and the ugly. Don't just celebrate your successes. Embrace failures and resolve them in public.


Ford "Earned Cred" Online
Detroit automakers didn't top anyone's "favorite brand" list during the recession. Of the Big Three, Ford has done the best job at using social media to regain ground with consumers. Since 1981, the car maker has garnered respect in Europe with its Fiesta line and wanted to bring the brand's reputation back to North America when it reintroduced the model there in 2010.

Tap in to existing communities, compliment, and contribute.

Ford gave 100 indie "agents" a free Fiesta for publicly 'lifecasting' their experiences with the car. Recipients included bloggers, filmmakers, and social networkers who were already documenting and sharing their lives. Their stories built an authentic and compelling narrative, published online at Alexis Morrell drove her Fiesta across the country twice in six months. "It changed my mind about Ford cars," she says. Meanwhile, a huge plus for Craig Benzine was that Ford didn't lead the discussion. "They made sure we could do or say what we wanted about the car, even if we hated it."

For $5 million, Ford achieved with social media what has traditionally cost auto marketers millions. Fiesta had 60 percent name recognition before it hit US lots. Jim Farley, VP of global marketing, said: "I want customers to tell our story. That's what digital has shown us?how to earn cred among consumers."


TV Network's Turnaround
A few years ago, CBS was known as a ?silver network??one with old, boring shows. In the cherished Thursday night block, CBS was losing ratings to NBC. In 2007, CBS tried to gain ground by introducing The Big Bang Theory, a sitcom about computer geeks directed at younger viewers. But the network still needed to get 20-somethings to watch it.

CBS built on fans? passions.

Genevieve first noticed the show in 2008 at the pop-culture conference Comic-Con. "I started following the producer Bill Prady and some of the actors from the show on Twitter," she says. "Prady's feed gave us an insider's view " he'd show [things like] the inside of the characters? fridge. He'd even crowd-source old computer props for the show.? Prady & Co. pinpointed their target audience and built on fans? passions.

In 2010 at Comic-Con, The Big Bang Theory cast and crew took over an auditorium. The show rose from a Neilsen rating of 59 in 2008 to 12 in 2010. CBS now aims to win Thursday night by creating a comedy block anchored by The Big Bang Theory.


A Refreshing Approach
The Pepsi Refresh Project is less about beverages and more about ideas. It uses social media to shift brand focus from buying sodas to funding causes for social good. Anyone can post?and vote?for ideas that "save something, create something, or change something" at Grant seekers leverage their networks on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and MySpace to spread the word and encourage participation.

Created by GOOD Projects, PepsiCo, and TBWA/Chiat/Day, the project gave $20 million in grants in 2010. After six months in service, 39 million votes had been cast online. PepsiCo expects to receive another 70 million by early 2011.

Retailer Skips the Script
Only 8 percent of CEOs are active on Twitter. Brian Dunn, CEO of Best Buy, is one of them. Dunn, who's been tweeting since 2008, sees social media as core to Best Buy's strategy: "When people buy a device, they often 'crowdsource' advice " [something we're] best positioned to give consumers.?

Best Buy has nearly 3,000 active employees tweeting.

Best Buy has long held an "open social strategy." The retailer took it public in 2009 with the launch of Twelpforce, a Twitter program in which employees offer advice to people who tweet questions about electronics. With nearly 3,000 active employees tweeting, Best Buy is realizing its vision of becoming more than an electronics chain. The company sees a future where customers rely on Best Buy as a trusted source with a "human search engine." Best Buy is also launching an experiment to help people share knowledge with fellow shoppers at

Viral Video Rejuvenates Old Brand
With Wieden + Kennedy in 2006, Procter & Gamble reinvigorated the Old Spice brand by putting more emphasis on innovation through marketing strategy than product development. By tethering the brand to its "manly man" equity, Procter &Gamble made Old Spice relevant to a new generation. Nothing demonstrates this better than 2010's real-time social media blitz. The Old Spice team posted 186 personal video responses to queries from fans featuring ex-football player Isaiah Mustafa in nothing more than a towel holding an Old Spice Body Wash.

The live production process made marketing history. Even more impressive was the seeding strategy: Days before the blitz, Mustafa recorded messages to influencers, including a "get well" video for Digg founder Kevin Rose who was home sick. Engaging with those who influence the technorati set the stage for success when the videos hit You Tube. By treating social media as a place to have a conversation with fans, P&G saw Body Wash sales climb 107 percent (versus the prior year), got tens of thousands of people to post questions, and made Old Spice the top-viewed branded channel on YouTube ever.

Be a Pattern Spotter

Now that you've been exposed to a few different examples, don't be surprised if you start seeing Life's Changes patterns all around. Keep your eyes open and let us know what you find, especially if it's the next new pattern.

PATTERNS are a collection of shared thoughts, insights, and observations gathered by IDEO through their work and the world around them. Read more pieces from the series here.

Suzanne Gibbs Howard is the editor-in-chief of PATTERNS, which she started with others to raise the bar for discussions about human-centered design both inside and outside of IDEO. A zealous observer of people and cultures, Suzanne came to IDEO via a crooked path involving archaeology, museum exhibit design, teaching high school, studying anthropology of religion, and being a dot commie. She crosses the full range of IDEO's offerings from high-tech education environments to postpartum hospital experiences to convenient yet healthy foods. She also is a passionate traveler, climber, sailor, research geek, and mom.

Rachel Switzky works as a senior design strategist, client relationship manager and business lead for the Design for Learning domain at IDEO. She leads IDEO's multidisciplinary teams by providing strategic guidance, structuring engagements, and translating client constraints into best offerings. Rachel enjoys gathering high-level insights across her portfolio of work, including projects focused on education and learning, multi-platform user experiences and complex system designs. Before joining IDEO, she played bass in Rolling Stone Magazine's "Hot Band of ?98."

Jody Turner, the founder of, is a small woman with a big brand stick. She likes working with the big brands bringing in the important human trends of the day? she's really just a strategic innovation ?advice giver?. Not so much bossy as Girl Scout like, Jody has contributed to the good folk at Apple, Nike, The Gap, TEDActive, BMW/Mini, Sony, Samsung, Microsoft and most importantly (and her fave) IDEO. She also spreads the good word via London's speaking engagements that take her to Dubai, Helsinki, Istanbul, Sao Palo, New York, Los Angeles, Ghana, yada yada. Jody's expertise is narration, innovation, communication design, just pick a topic and watch her go.

Meija Jacobs
has more than 15 years of brand strategy and research, helping clients benefit from understanding what's really meaningful to people. Spotting patterns across clients as diverse as Coca-Cola, Ford, and Deloitte has led Meija to ideas that matter to people, build brands and business. Her work has been recognized by a host of awards including EFFIE, Cannes, and Jay Chiat Planning Awards. Meija keeps her inspiration fresh by moving her body with yoga, dance, or urban hikes. She's currently on a mission for the best salad in San Francisco.

Add New Comment


  • Tattiadrianna

    Social Media is no longer a craze.  It's a
    way of life for most of us.  We wake up and check our emails, facebook,
    and twitter all before pouring our first cup of coffee.  If you want to
    stay in the loop, you have to be in the loop.  Social Media makes that
    possible.  We are multi-tasking while listening to the morning news, checking
    our stock reports and uploading videos for new products all within minutes.
     There are social media sites for every demographic.  Once you find
    it, you’re hooked.  As for business opportunities, there are no limits.  


    companies, small and large, have benefited from the use of social media.
     Word of mouth takes on a whole different meaning than in the old days of
    Madison Avenue.  Nowadays, Madison Avenue exists in every home and office
    around the globe.  We can not only view the hottest campaigns but we are
    also one click away from making a purchase or blogging about it to the masses.


    We are in
    a realm of possibilities with social media.  People are "linking and liking" each
    other and it keeps expanding.  Products are sold faster because of these
    links AND of blogs AND of testimonials.  Social Media is here to stay.
     Jump in and enjoy the surf.

  • Gloria Hennings

    You are absolutely correct. Social media is a way of life. If you don't belong to one of the social media networks you are out of touch. I have to admit that I use social media a lot to keep in touch and informed on what is going on from government officials and agencies to favorite department stores. In order to stay on top of goverment agencies like Boeing and Dyncorp I join their pages so I can see any news or messages that they have posted before it hits the newspapers

  • Robert James

    I got started with the whole Social Media craze about a year ago. My first foray into the murky waters of Social Media was opening a MySpace Account. Over time I got to 70 or 80 friends on Facebook without really trying. I really didn’t know what I wanted to do with it, but I started posting pictures of places I had been, and every now and then some news item I thought was noteworthy. Then, there was this philosophical phase I was going through, and I began posting “deep thoughts”.... well, they seemed deep to me.

    I had opened a Plaxo and Linkedin professional account several years before that, but never really paid much attention to them. I rarely posted anything there, wasn’t very responsive to incoming messages, and from time-to-time my profile was out of date.

    Then I decided to leave my job, strike out on my own, and do something different. It was then that I began rethinking the “networking” value of these sites and how I could use them to my advantage for finding that next job, or starting that new business.

    I’ve learned some things along the way. New terms, ways to link the content of my social media sites together, how to utilize posting, blogs, etc.

    One of the things I have learned, is that using these platforms in your business is a lot like building relationships before all of the buzz on social media. The same principles apply, and it’s the compounding factor of how these sites link you to others that make it different.

    So what are those principles?

    Well, I am not sure that you will read this and have an “ah ha” moment. No, they are more like a “blinding flash of the obvious”... but it was helpful for me to write them down, as a reminder, that social media compounds your ability to build good relationships. It does not replace it.

    Make sure your profile is up to date, articulate, interesting to read, and has a decent picture. People respond to someone that they know. A picture, and an easy to read and interesting profile helps build your brand.

    People have to know that you are authentic.... that you care about them, and that you are working to help solve their problems. If you help them first, you’ll be surprised how it comes back to you in a positive way. If people think they are just another contact, or you are always trying to “sell” them, no amount of social networking skills will help you. It’s no different in the face-to-face world. It is my belief that authenticity wins.

    You need to promptly respond to messages. You wouldn’t leave a phone message from a friend linger for days, and when it’s on the Internet people have an expectation for a very prompt response.

    You need to mix it up. Sometimes an electronic message should be returned with a phone call. Wouldn’t someone be surprised if you took the time to call? Another great way to respond is to send a brief electronic reply, and if the matter isn’t urgent, a “snail mail” hand written note. Both phone calls and notes tell someone that they matter enough to you for you to take the time to write or call.

    Not everyone on your “friends” or “contacts” lists are created equal. There are influencers, decision makers, friends, hangers-on” and all sorts of people on those lists. They may all know you, but they are not of the same value to you. While you can easily post a blog that they all can read it, there are some on that list that should get a separate email with your blog link, or perhaps a phone call. Good relationship builders know how to segment their contacts. Social Media doesn’t replace the need to do that.

    Garbage in.... garbage out.... Providing current and relevant content is critical to building brand. When I was an insurance agent, I used to scour news papers and magazines for information about my clients, the industries they were in, and other topical articles. I would reprint them and send them out with a hand written note. When I provided relevant and topical content it built my brand and credibility. The devil of it is it takes time, thought, and a commitment to do it. I used to actually book reading time on my calendar for that purpose. Posting stuff electronically is no different, except now the audience is potentially unlimited. Quality content builds brand.

    Your social media initiative needs a good follow-up system. Everyone has a different way of following up on active projects, and prospective sales. But, what about that contact who mentioned that a family member was having big health issues? Or that person who took on a new job a few months ago, got married, moved, got promoted? A personal follow-up from these kind of postings increases your relationships with those folks. It shows that they matter to you.

    At the end of the day, we all want to know that we are appreciated, that we matter, that someone knows who we are, and that someone has an interest in our life.

    People who are good relationship builders have always worked to make sure that the folks they interact with know that they matter.

    Whether it is in the online world of Social Media, or at the kindergarten picnic, the same skills apply.