PHILADELPHIA: Clear positioning and a strong "DNA" are vital for global brands to succeed in the era of social media, according to a leading academic.

Barbara Kahn, director of the Jay H. Baker Retailing Center at the Wharton business school, noted how over the past 100 years brands had moved from being product-focused through customer-focused until now when customers had more control of the brand's connotations.

"A lot of what the brand means is communicated through discussions in social media, through chats, through blogs, through things that the manufacturer or the brand owner doesn't control," she said in an interview.

"Unless you really position the brand in a very strong way and people understand its DNA, you run the risk of detrimental things being said about your brand or a lack of consistency – it's a very hard world to control," she added.

Nonetheless, social media could be a great advantage – personal recommendations via this channel were "compelling" – and it was here to stay.

Kahn said brands had "a love/hate relationship" with social media and marketers needed to understand "how to leverage it and how to keep it together and keep it as a positive influence for the brand".

At the recent Cannes Lions Festival, John Kennedy, IBM's vice-president for corporate marketing, offered up his own take on social media, with the theory of the "Chief Executive Customer". He suggested that the customer has been elevated to a virtual C-suite due to his or her increased power, brought about by the emergence of the social web.

On the issue of brand positioning, Kahn argued that marketers must "understand who your competitive set is and why you are better than that competition".

She also suggested that a brand should consider emotional and personal characteristics and think about what a target user would look like.

"Your brand may be broader than that target user, but if you have a target user in mind in thinking about the brand positioning, you come up with a much sharper brand," she stated, citing Apple as providing a positive example.

People might think of a young designer as a target user for Apple, she said, and, while this gave a clear vision of the brand, it did not limit who might buy Apple products.

Data sourced from Knowledge@Wharton; additional content by Warc staff