The march of social media: Online branding relevant to us all

mdc_symbolAs Zimbabwes embrace of new media continues to rise at a remarkable rate, a new front has opened for the two main political forces. The party that does the best job of managing its brand online will be the party that wins the hearts and minds of a new tech-savvy and globalised generation, writes HILTON MENDELSOHN.

We are always engaged in brand management. Whether it is on the conscious or subconscious level, we are always trying to project an image of the person we would like people to think we are. The way we walk, the way we talk, the colours we wear, by commission or by omission we influence the way people see us and we influence perception of our personal or corporate brand.

The explosion of the use of internet and mobile data has amplified this and the potential impact we could have has multiplied to levels that many of us would battle even to begin to comprehend. While it could be argued that this is only relevant to people in the public eye, the truth is that very little is private any more. The concept of “privacy” can only be considered in terms of extent and context and – with employers, business partners and even friends able gather information on you with astonishing immediacy – online branding has become relevant to us all.

Not being online is not an option either. That choice simply hands the advantage to the competition in almost every respect and effectively surrenders control over the way you are perceived. Individuals and organisations are no longer assessed only upon how they present themselves, but also by the things people say about you, whether anything is being said about you. Having nothing at all said about you is probably the worst position to be in for the brand conscious.

The ease with which people can comment about you or your brand has left us all exposed and vulnerable. At the click of a button, misrepresentations of the truth are exposed, quality defects in your product broadcasted, and that which used to be so easy to conceal is brought instantly into the spotlight. Few have any other option but to be aware and vigilant about their brand online.

A few weeks ago pop artist Sean Kingston put on an underwhelming performance in Harare leaving the crowds that paid $100 to see the show disappointed. In a vain attempt to enhance his personal brand he claimed, on his Facebook page, to have thrown $3000 into the crowd. This backfired spectacularly and within minutes comments from irate Zimbabweans flooded his page refuting this claim and accusing the artist of being patronising and condescending.

The post was removed from his page but not before a screenshot was taken and re-distributed around the web. With a few ill advised strokes on a keyboard Sean Kingston permanently damaged his brand in not only in Zimbabwe but around the world and it will be very difficult for him to recover.

In America, would-be presidential candidate Donald Trump set social media alight by claiming credit for forcing President Barack Obama to present his birth certificate publicly for the first time. The incident immediately drew parallels to the times when people of colour were forced to present identification documents at the behest of pretty much any white person.

In the eyes of many Trump was immediately branded racist rendering his purported presidential campaign unlikely unless he performs a miraculous recovery. That said his brand association with superfluous TV shows, bankruptcies, the glamorous life had already made any meaningful campaign unlikely.

The political arena has been impacted more heavily than any. Barack Obama literally tore his opponents to shreds in his presidential campaign because of his campaigns mastery of new media. His image was spun into iconic posters, t-shirts, posters and other election paraphernalia inundating web. Where his image was presented the words “Hope” and “Yes we can” were never far away and brand Obama came to represent the aspirations of a tech generation fatigued with the same old politics. In contrast his opponents seemed to stand for nothing, had very little online visibility and their increasingly desperate attempts to counter this rapid advance seemed leaden footed, simplistic and pandering.

Long before the Obama phenomenon a new political force was sweeping onto the stage in Zimbabwe. It too carried clean and simple imagery, an open palm symbolising peace and transparency. It also carried a simple and clear message, “Change that captured the imagination of a generation that had trudged through over 20 years of political musical and the stagnation that comes with broken promises and misappropriated resources. This force was the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) and it has emerged become the most popular political party in Zimbabwe. The MDC had a simple brand and a clear message.

In contrast the party in power at the time, Zanu (PF)’s had moved from its simple crowing cock and communist/one party state image and message to a mish-mash of images and messages adopted more out of expediency than calculation or belief. The single clear image that had come to represent the brand had become the face of Robert Mugabe.

The effect of this has been for Brand Mugabe to represent Brand Zanu (PF) and the party has found it impossible to even consider replacing him and with concerns over his age and health the party is in a very precarious position. Beyond this the brand has come to be associated with violence and negativity characteristics that, while being intimidating, are hardly inspiring.

Since its early successes the MDC has not fared much better. Their brand has come to represent stagnation as the need to provide some stability in Zimbabwe forced their entry into the Government of National Unity. The split of the party into two separate entities and subsequent wrangle for ownership of the brand name has culminated in the personalisation of the brand with MDC T representing the Morgan Tsvangirai faction and MDC M representing that factions erstwhile leader Arthur Mutambara, now MDC-N under Welshman Ncube. This has further diluted the brand and added an element of confusion in terms of policy and therefore message leaving the majority of Zimbabweans uncertain about what the party stands for now beyond opposition to Mugabe and Zanu (PF).

This lack of clarity in respect of what the Zimbabwean political brands has left the political landscape practically feudal with the parties themselves floundering under internal pressure caused by fragmentation. Online Brand presence is very weak and where this does exist it frankly will not hold the attention of the average internet user for more than a few passing seconds.

As the countrys embrace of new media continues to rise at a remarkable rate, a new front has opened for the two main political forces. The party that does the best job of managing its brand online will be the party that wins the hearts and minds of a new tech-savvy and globalised generation. Frog-marching people into feigning support for your policies will not make any party dominant in the psyche of this generation and therefore not claim their loyalty. Both parties can be said to have surrendered control of their brands in both the physical and virtual worlds. – Hilton Mendelsohn is a founder member and Trustee of WEZIMBABWE, and a partner at Quartz Marketing.

Post published in: Opinions

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *