Branding in the age of the mob

“We dislike your logo!” The mob of brand haters is on the march.

In the village, the global village, the angry mob never seems to sleep.

They are outraged. About everything. And they’re telling everyone they can about it.

They’re shouting it out on your timelines, seeking your support for their cause — your retweet, your Facebook share, your e-signature on their virtual petitions.

And they’re coming for your brand.

In matters large or trivial, from Gamergate to Cecil the lion, the Internet has given individuals a voice and a power that was unimaginable a mere two decades ago. There’s no question that this empowerment has been a force for good. Crowdfunding, Wikipedia and the open-source movement are all examples of how the Internet can bring out the best in people through its decentralized nature. James Surowiecki’s book The Wisdom of Crowds helped popularize the idea that groups could come together for a common cause.

From wisdom of crowds to ‘ever-shifting mob’

But it seems that lately we’ve moved from the wisdom of crowds to the outrage of the mob.

“The Ever Shifting Mob” is what my higher ed marketing colleague Dennis Miller calls it in this excellent post about a now-forgotten firestorm involving clueless restaurant management, a fired waitress and a stingy minister.

“The Ever Shifting Mob,” Miller wrote, “is always in the wings, ready to wave the cyber pitchforks and torches, screaming for whatever they think at the moment is justice.”

That’s the exact point Vox‘s Max Fisher makes in his recent post about Cecil the lion’s killing. Fisher writes that “mob justice” is “not primarily about punishing the crime or the criminal, but rather about indulging the outrage of the mob and its thirst for vengeance.”

At loggerheads over logos

I doubt that anything as extreme as a “thirst for vengeance” was the motive behind this petition against a UK university’s rebranding initiative. If the thirst is there, it’s cloaked in cordial language. More accurately, the people who launched the online appeal to reverse the rebranding at Loughborough University seem upset that they weren’t involved in the decision to move forward with a new logo.

The petitioners are quick to point out that many of them are alumni who are “now professionals in marketing and design” and to state that their appeal is not in opposition to change but to “bad brand design.” In fact, as far as I can tell from reading the petition and related documentation, their discontent is with the university’s new logo rather than any broader brand identity. “The new logo,” they write, “completely devalues all sense of quality as a trusted academic institution.”

The exchange between the university and petitioners makes for fascinating reading, even if it is a bit one-sided. It’s reminiscent of the social media stir that occurred a couple of years ago after the University of California decided to update its visual identity. Or the more recent issue with Penn State’s new logo, which was unveiled last week and quickly ridiculed on social media.

In each of these scenarios, the marketing and administrative leaders went to great lengths to inform and consult with their constituents. But that didn’t stop the mob from lashing out. Each situation serves as reminders of the extra steps that must be taken by organizations that have so many stakeholders — so many of whom believe they are entitled to offer input, and who have ready access to the Internet megaphone to amplify their voices when they aren’t happy about an institution’s decisions.

‘Why wasn’t I consulted?’

In many ways, the Penn State, Loughborough and University of California cases echo a concern raised in a January 2011 post about the web as a multi-stakeholder platform, The Web Is a Customer Service Medium, by Paul Ford. (It’s a long read, but well worth your time.) The biggest issue regarding web development, Ford writes, is what he calls “Why wasn’t I consulted?” or WWIC.

“Why wasn’t I consulted,” which I abbreviate as WWIC, is the fundamental question of the web. It is the rule from which other rules are derived. Humans have a fundamental need to be consulted, engaged, to exercise their knowledge (and thus power), and no other medium that came before has been able to tap into that as effectively. …

WWIC is the thing people talk about when they talk about nicer-sounding things like “the wisdom of crowds” or “cognitive surplus.” It has become the first thing I think about when I think about the web. I’ve spent a lot of time with users, and as part of various web communities. I’ve answered thousands of emails about things I built or said. Now, when I sit down to graffle, I start by asking: “How do we deal with the WWIC problem?” Everything else comes after.

“How do we deal with the WWIC problem?”

What a great question. And one we in higher ed, where such high value is placed on consensus-building and the notion of shared governance, ought to be asking ourselves. All. The. Time.

Everyone’s a consultant

First off, maybe we start by thinking of “the WWIC problem” as something other than a problem. Maybe we start by thinking of it as the reality — a given in this age of social media. It’s the way things are. People need to be consulted. Build that into our processes.

Perhaps it isn’t that the mob is angry so much as it wants to be consulted.

But: When everyone wants to be consulted, then everyone becomes a consultant.

Some of our most difficult work in branding, marketing and communications is not in the development of strategies, tactics, plans, creative and messaging. It’s in the consulting of our many stakeholders and giving them the opportunity to be heard.

The interconnected, anti-authoritarian, anti-hierarchical, disintermediated nature of the Internet, layered atop higher education’s culture of consensus building, gives rise to an entirely new set of challenges for brand managers. We must learn to be skillful at involving myriad constituents in our branding and rebranding initiatives, lest we be faced with the torches and pitchforks of an unconsulted, if not necessarily angry, mob.


Author: andrewcareaga

Higher ed PR and marketing guy. Communications director for Missouri University of Science and Technology (Missouri S&T) in Rolla, Missouri, USA. Slow runner, mediocre guitarist, lover of music and puns, and an avid St. Louis Cardinals fan. I blog and Tweet about #highered, #music, #gocards and #random stuff.

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