The waters of social media may be muddy, fast-moving and full of contradictory crosscurrents, but I'm sure we can agree on one thing: that being friends with brands is bullshit.
This isn't just semantic nitpickery. A focus on 'friends' implies a flaw in a brand's social media approach, such as trying to 'own' consumers on branded presences, rather than encouraging conversation and advocacy further afield, or treating clicks on Like and Follow buttons as meaningful metrics and goals. As for consumers, our early, indiscriminate enthusiasm for social networking is taking a more strategic shape. From Ex's we're bored of stalking to brand groups we joined solely to scoop a freebie, we're weeding fake friends out by the trowel-load. We were never really interested in what your CEO had for lunch and, nowadays, we won't even pretend.
This begs the question: what other, more authentic relationship should businesses be building with consumers in social media – a relationship that is emotionally and financially rewarding for us both?
The most successful brands have always known that 'friendship' is a fickle and fuzzy objective, and have opted to use social media to be either functional or fun. In the functional camp sit the likes of Twelpforce, Best Buy's team of technology pros who tackle customer service enquiries in-store and across social networks in real-time; toilet paper brand Charmin's SitOrSquat mobile app, which allows users to search for and rate over 52,000 public toilets in ten countries according to cleanliness and facilities; and my local East London bakery, Albion Café, which uses @AlbionsOven to tweet the instant each tray of goodies comes out of the oven so you can get them when they're fresh and hot. These companies are using social media to make the service or product they provide quicker, easier, richer or more personalised, with the obvious benefit that this links directly to increased user time, sales and loyalty.
In the fun camp, we have US fast food chain Taco Bell, whose Twitter team pride themselves on their witty and eclectic repartee, referencing everything from Mean Girls to the stupidity of diets; Old Spice, which uses on-brand alpha-male characters, such as Isaiah Mustafa or 'the guy who dumps Heather Graham', to send personalised social media messages; and Innocent drinks, which encourages its customers to knit tiny hats for their smoothie bottles, and whose design team upload sketches of newts in bras to Instagram. Social media allows every brand to become an entertainment brand, if they can nail the right tone and content. At this autumn's Colombian Marketing Congress, Coca-Cola's Latin American VP Javier Sánchez Lamelas announced that Coke will be putting entertainment at the heart of its future, with Coke.TV and merchandising stores at the fore.
But the real winners are combining both fun and functionality, creating a hybrid connection with their consumers, which I like to dub 'brandship.' Brandship is based on the belief that if you're a business and not an individual in social media, you should be giving us something useful; but also that because you're doing it in social, we'll expect a more creative, personal and conversational approach.
Nokia's social taxi is a prime example of brandship. London's biannual Social Media Week can be a tricky time for a brand to make a splash, with scores of companies vying for the attention of the social savvy city crowd. But this February, by asking what would really be helpful to busy event-hopping attendees, we helped Nokia devise the 'social taxi': a cab branded with eye-catching Lumia 800 Amazing Everyday visuals, which could be ordered by anyone in town tweeting @nokia_connects using the #SMWLDN and #nokiaconnects hashtags. As well as taking you from A to B, the cab offered random lucky travellers the chance to head to a game of laser tag, a massage or a glass-blowing class instead. And it reacted in real-time to remain as useful as possible. When one tweeter bemoaned the fact that he'd left it too late to buy his girlfriend a Valentines gift, the cab picked up a romantic treat and delivered it straight to his feet. If a business is relevant, helpful and full of delightful surprises, it truly earns its place in social media.
So perhaps the best question any brand looking for social media success should ask itself is: what can we provide here that no-one else can? Brandship should be warm and playful, but it should also, crucially, serve a purpose. Serve a purpose, and your ROI will become a tad more tangible than an emoticon.