Unwritten Rules: Teaching Brands Communality

This post is a summary of the presentation that my colleague Kate Canales and I gave at SXSW 2011. It was originally published in design mind on March 16, 2011.

It’s been said that good artists borrow, but great artists steal. We recently discovered a corollary to this statement: when presenting borrowed ideas at SXSW you should credit your source, because he might be sitting in the audience. In our case, that source was the behavioral economist Dan Ariely. When we flashed his book cover up on the projector to give him (and Steven Pinker) credit for inspiring our presentation, we heard a voice calling out “I’m here!” and there he sat in row two.

According to the logic of our presentation, this was all in the spirit of Communality. Communality is one of three relationship types that, according to the anthropologist Alan Fiske (cited by both Ariely and Pinker), characterize much of human social life. We also think Fiske’s framework helps explain why many brands have been baffled by social media.

As Pinker writes, the rule of communality is “What’s mine is yours, what’s yours is mine.” Communality has its roots in the family, but many other relationships fit this bill. A dinner party is a communal experience. And crucially, social media is a communal space. Brands, though, struggle with this because they are accustomed to another set of rules: the rules of Exchange.

In Exchange, the rule is “If you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.” We acknowledge that we are behaving according to this set of rules when we say “It’s not personal, it’s just business.” Unlike in Communality, in Exchange, we count and keep track. We are upset when we find out the person sitting next to us on the plane paid less than we did.

Acting according to the wrong set of relationship rules can create awkwardness. Running into your doctor at a concert as he gives you a drunken high five? Awkward. Going in to hug a coworker who isn’t expecting it? Awkward. And in the dinner party example, giving your host a “tip” as you might at a restaurant? Awkward.

More to the point, promoting yourself in social media? This is also awkward. But promotion is the primary mode of communication for most brands. So what is a brand to do? The opportunity we see is for brands to calibrate to the prevailing norms of social media (the rules of Communality) and start brand building through behavior. We suggest three sets of behavior for brands to adopt in order to cultivate meaningful relationships with people in social media:

Pull back the curtain
Everyone knows that Facebook is great at maintaining distant social connections like long-lost high school friends. For businesses, the opportunity is less about friendship and more about access to real people. Social media allows brands to provide customers deep, but curated access in ways that simply weren’t possible previously. Best Buy’s Twelpforce, is one such example and is rightfully heralded as one of the smarter branded deployments of social media to date. Best Buy recognized that its disembodied logo didn’t have all the answers, but its staff did.

Stop selling and start sharing
When you show up for a dinner party at a friend’s house, your communal signal is a bottle of wine. For brands in social media, signaling can be entertainment or information offered with no strings attached. Crucially, the gift must to be something interesting in its own right, something people will want to share with their friends. Blendtec’s “Will It Blend?” video series is a great example. At frog, this is the rationale behind our design mind content platform.

Stop talking and start listening
This is perhaps the most significant untapped opportunity in social media for many brands, particularly those in the service business. Listening to the chatter in a place like Twitter provides not only an opportunity to respond to customers in the moment, as Southwest Airlines does, but also a chance to acquire insight into how services and products can be better designed to prevent similar complaints from arising in the future. Bravo has taken bold steps here, tweaking the storylines of its reality TV shows and even launching new ones in response to social media comments.

All of the above tactics recognize the essential Communality of social media, but one size does not fit all. The challenge is to decide how your brand should appropriately to engage in communal behavior with customers. Call it the Dinner Party Test. What are you going to bring to the party?

To check out the outline of the presentation, see the slides below:

1 thought on “Unwritten Rules: Teaching Brands Communality

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