Brand Religion: A Reading from the Book of Skittles

First published March 5, 2009 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

There’s something about Tuesdays. Just when I’m starting to think about what my Thursday column is going to be about, something hits my inbox that seems freakishly timely. This time, it was David Berkowitz’s ode to Skittles.com. My intention was to write about brand religions playing out online, and here, in all its gory, real-time splendor, was a parable made to order. It would be unseemly, not to mention unfaithful, not to read the signs from above and pick up this story thread so graciously thrown in front of me.

Now, let’s get the Skittle Scuttlebutt out of the way, as more has transpired since the last time David spoke. As David said, Skittles.com is no longer a site, but a Flash navigation bar that hovers over live feeds from other Skittles-oriented online destinations. Originally, the home page was a live Twitter Feed, but the ignoble masses had the temerity to use the Skittles name in vain, so that idea was scuttled and the TweetFest was moved back to a section called “Chatter.” Now the home page is a feed of the Wikipedia entry (which has been updated to include the story, so it’s like a never-ending feedback loop). You can also visit the brand’s Facebook “Friends” page. There are some massive usability issues, but that aside, nobody can scoff at Skittles for a lack of courage.  It remains to be seen how successful this is, but the fact is, almost 600,000 fans have signed up on Facebook, and the brand has generated huge buzz.
So, what is a parable for, if not to learn from? And here are 10 commandments for every brand who fancies themselves a religion, if they have the courage to go where Skittles has gone:

1.    Thou Shalt Not Expect Everyone to Believe. As was shown in the Skittles case, if you choose to live by the Social Media Sword, understand you can also die by the Social Media Sword. Opening up the conversation to your believers also means you open the doors to the non-faithful, who will take every opportunity to express themselves.

2.    Thou Shalt Not Build Your Own Churches. Believers like to build their own churches and not have the brand build it for them. This is almost never successful. Skittles is trying to find middle ground by using their site as a shortcut to a few online destinations that help define the online image of Skittles. It’s an interesting move, but I believe it will ultimately be a short-lived one. For one thing, it’s confusing as hell.

3.    Thou Shalt Have No Illusions of Control. If a brand goes down this path, they have to accept (everyone, repeat after me — and that means you, Mr/Ms CEO) that by opening the door to the masses, they abdicate all control. If Skittles.com turns sour, all Skittles can do is pull the plug on their official endorsement. The buzz will outlive the campaign and take on a life of its own.

4.    Thou Shalt Understand the Web is a Fragmented Place. What is interesting about the Skittles experiment is that it’s a tentative acknowledgement that the sum total of a brand lives in many places online. The idea of defining the boundary within one Web site is long dead.

5.    Thou Shalt Honor Thy Product. You have to have a pretty damn popular product to take this step. There’s probably nothing more innocuous than Skittles (who could hate a little fruit candy?) and yet some still managed to spout bile all over this little social media stunt. The more beloved the product (and the company behind it), the more secure you can be in letting your fans be your spokesperson.

6.    Thou Shalt Accept What One is Given. If your brand builds a devout following, your customers will take it upon themselves to generously share more than you ever expected about what the brand is, what it isn’t and what it should be. You have opened up more than a dialogue; you have embarked on a weird and wonderful partnership with your customers. Embrace this or lose it. Consider the story of Timberland, who had no idea that they’d become the chosen footwear of hip-hop. At first they disbelieved it, then they ignored it, then they fought it — and finally, they embraced it. Today, you can customize your Timberlands in pink and purple with your own monogrammed tag and customized embroidery: a fully pimped pump.

7.    Thou Shalt Know Thy Flock. If you’re going to intersect your faithful where they live, you have to know something about them. David wondered if Twitter was really the best social media choice for the Skittles target market. If your brand has already established online places of worship, spend some time in stealth mode and get the lay of the land before you go public.

8.    Thou Shalt Listen. Online gives you thousands of listening posts to get the pulse of your brand. One example I saw this week: the iPhone app Dial Zero. It’s a nifty little assistant that gives you tips to avoid the dreaded voicemail dead zones for over 600 companies. A quick look up and you have tips to connect with an actual live person. But what’s even more interesting is that it shows real-time comments from people who’ve recently called.

9.    Thou Shalt Live Up to Your Flock’s Beliefs. With devotion comes responsibility. In return for their brand loyalty, they will hold you to a higher standard. They have emotionally invested in your brand, so if you disappoint them, it will leave a bigger scar than just a passing frustration. Hell hath no fury like a customer scorned.

10.    Thou Shalt Count Thy Blessings Every Day. Brand evangelism. Brand loyalty. The willingness to pay a premium. An unwavering devotion untouched by the millions in advertising spent by your competitors. A much lower cost of acquisition. And millions of pages of customer-generated content. All brands should be so lucky.

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