Branding in the Social Age

Hint: it's about outside-the-bag thinking

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Editor’s note: Meet Robert Hahn at the upcoming Real Estate Connect conference in San Francisco, which runs from Aug. 5-7, 2009. He will be available to meet with conference attendees from 12:30 p.m. to 1:30 p.m. on Thursday, Aug. 6, in the Palace Hotel’s Ralston Room. Click here to send Robert a message.

In last week’s column, I wrote about the myths of social media. This week, I’d like to take a look at a success story. But it’s gonna be a weird one as far as social media goes.

Let’s talk about bags. Yep — bags, those things of leather and cloth you put stuff into. Specifically, I’d like to draw your attention to Waterfield, a maker of laptop bags based in San Francisco.

So what makes Waterfield our example of choice for social media? The way that they have gotten me to go to their site then persuaded me to part with a large sum of money for one of their products, sight unseen, is what makes Waterfield a company you might want to study.

The journey begins

I started with a need: a new computer bag for the trip to Inman’s Real Estate Connect event. My current bag, stylish and metrosexual it may be, was starting to feel far too small for all the gadgets I have to carry for long trips.

What was interesting is that there was already a very strong brand in my head: InCase, the maker of my current neoprene laptop sleeve. The InCase Web site is very strong, and they do have a blog. They’re practicing social media! Plus, InCase makes great products.

So I was going to visit the InCase site and buy a bag and be done with it. Except that, like many a consumer in the age of CNET, I thought, "Let me see what folks have to say about laptop bags." I approached the "Great God Google" and asked this question: "best macbook bags"?

I find myself on the MacLife Web site, perusing an article about laptop bags. The article is your typical magazine review fare: pretty pictures and a review of each bag, with ratings and so on. There’s nothing in the article itself to make me change my mind about picking up a nice InCase bag.

Then a glittery comment about Waterfield caught my eye.

Now, maybe the commenter is affiliated with Waterfield — you just have to take his word for it that he isn’t. And maybe all of the other commenters that follow, who are also singing Waterfield’s praises, are secretly employees and investors in Waterfield. …CONTINUED

But they do sound like real people, not salespeople.

Naturally, I’m intrigued, so I pop open a browser and type in "www.sfbags.com" for the Waterfield site.

Branding without claiming

As I’m flipping through the pictures of various bags on the site, I’m pretty far from being impressed. Compared to the slickness of the InCase site (which is still my No. 1 choice, remember), the Waterfield site is yawn-inspiring. I can’t describe the difference adequately, so go check it out: here’s the InCase page for its Courier Collection bags and the Waterfield page for its Cargo Bag.

Did you see the beautiful and snazzy InCase page? That is one of the best-designed e-commerce Web sites around, that’s for sure. Had things stopped there, I would have purchased an InCase bag and you wouldn’t be reading this column right now.

But … did you catch the customer testimonials at the bottom of the page for Waterfield? Did you read them? Here’s one: 
"first of all I must say that the customer service experience from you guys has been, to put it mildly, astonishingly good. I can’t remember the last time I was personally thanked for buying something online that wasn’t a cookie-cutter form letter.

"A very nice surprise was the handwritten ‘Thank You’ note on the invoice. I mean COME ON … who does this these days? Again, wow. This kind of hands-on attention is just so foreign to my other buying experiences that it just really impressed the hell out of me. It’s like I have been working in an Industrial Revolution sweatshop and William Morris just showed up to give me a drink of water.

"Most importantly, this bag kicks ass. I don’t need to tell you about the quality and so on (you make them, you already know that) But I will say that I see where my $254 went. This thing is built like a sexy, soft and rugged tank. It looks insanely cool, it feels really good and well made, hell, it even SMELLS good."

Hmm. A product and a company that inspire this kind of raving from someone who spent $254 on a computer bag? I checked out the other reviews. They were all frothing-at-the-mouth raves and kudos of Waterfield and its products.

Granted, the company selected these testimonials — and maybe even asked for them. But everyone can do that. Not everyone can get this kind of love from its customers. At a minimum, the company deserved more looking into. …CONTINUED

So off I go to the "About Us" page. If you’re interested in social media branding, please go read this page.

Ladies and gentlemen, that’s how a human voice on the Internet sounds. "Crazy expensive — but worth it" is how a real person talks.

Getting into the details of production (ballistic nylon? Half-circle vs. U-shaped openings?) is something that a guy who’s really, really into making bags might sound like. Consider how many "About Us" sections are drained of all soul and personality by the time the copywriters, the marketing people, the legal team, the communications team, and the executive team are done with them.

Since many of you are in real estate, consider your own "About Me" section. Could a first-time visitor tell from reading it that you are a real estate geek, the way I could tell that the people at Waterfield are bag geeks? Could they read your property description and pick up that you’re into houses as much as Gary and his people at Waterfield are into zippers, ballistic nylon, and D-rings?

Most importantly, would your clients leave you testimonials like the ones that Waterfield customers leave for them, not just on the Waterfield site, but on MacLife?

Ultimately, that’s who sold me on Waterfield: the customers. Only then did I find out that Waterfield is on Twitter (@sfbags) and has a Facebook page. What I saw there merely confirmed what I had come to believe about Waterfield.

Branding in the Social Age

This is branding in the Social Age. There are three components to it, as exemplified by Waterfield Designs:

  • Superior product;
  • Constant communications with the customer;
  • Raving fans, not just satisfied customers.

First and foremost, branding in the social age requires the superior product. It’s what Tara Hunt of "The Whuffie Factor" calls being remarkable, and what Seth Godin might call the "Purple Cow." Whatever it is, you need a superior product or service.

The lesson I draw from Waterfield is that you don’t create those products or services without being a bit of a geek. Gary Waterfield is a bag geek. He likely thinks about things the rest of us take completely for granted. In your case, are you a real estate geek?

Second, branding in the Social Age requires constant communication with (at least) customers. I loved that Waterfield talked about how the secret to their success is that they listen to customer feedback: …CONTINUED

"You ask for it, you get it. The VertiGo travel tote took on a vertical shape when customers complained of sore shoulders. The snug-fitting laptop SleeveCases were developed with university students who were looking for a simple protective covering for hauling their laptops to classes.

"Racer-X was originally created for Apple users who were looking for a case to protect their new Titanium G4’s. You talk, Gary listens."

All the blogging, the tweeting, the social networking — none of it means a damn thing if you’re not listening to your customers. If all you’re doing is broadcasting, trying to pimp yet another one of your blog posts, or trying to have your "followers" hear more of what you have to say … well, I suppose you’re doing something, but it isn’t communicating.

Branding in the Social Age is done by other people — your raving lunatic fans. Waterfield has them, Apple has them, Ferrari has them … do you have them?

Every Realtor has testimonials somewhere handy. Go take a look at yours. Do they sound like raving lunatics? Or just polite neighbors saying something nice in a tone that doesn’t really strike you as natural? One of Waterfield’s testimonial e-mails has as its subject: "Holy s***!" (Note: the full word is edited out here, but not in the testimonial.) Any of your customers saying that about you? If not, what must you change?

If you have all three, congratulations! You have mastered the art of branding in the Social Age. Now go forth and conquer.

You may convert people coming in who had another brand in mind, were checking things out "just to see," get overwhelmed by the raving lunatic fans you have, see that you’re a real estate geek in ways they couldn’t comprehend, and decide they must experience it for themselves.

My Waterfield bag arrives this week. I can’t wait.

Robert Hahn is managing partner of 7DS Associates, a marketing, technology and strategy consultancy focusing on the real estate industry. He is also founder of The Notorious R.O.B. blog.

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