Social Capital meets branding

I'm obsessed with social capital at present.  So here's a little post-medinge 'train dump' prior to drafting a journal...

September 9, 2008

I’m obsessed with social capital at present.  So here’s a little post-medinge ‘train dump’ prior to drafting a journal article. The emerging field of social capital suggests that strong benefits flow both for the individual and for society from the establishment of strong and resilient social ties.  This so-called social capital has a triple utility for social planners. 

Building on these theoretical foundations, the marketing discipline emerges as a natural arena for testing the practical value of these insights, combining as it does, transactional, relationship-based and community-based thinking.   More specifically, the literature suggests that these personal and social benefits may be accelerated by the fostering of friendship, the injection of fresh ideas and the cultivation of common ideals – all functions that brands are well-equipped to support.

I want to establish the relevance of social capital theory to prevailing brand theory and consider where its inclusion or consideration may suggest improvements to existing practice.  I would suggest that each of the three lenses on social capital outlined above has a distinct and practical value for brand stewards.

For example, as a set of operational rules, social capital suggests a number of actionable practices -  inclusiveness, transparency and participatory identity-building – which may be directly applied by socially-aware brand-builders.  It suggests the need for more open conversations, more authentic collaboration and more networked, bottom-up approaches to change.   These so-called social communications principles are readily actioned and already being widely adopted, albeit often in isolation.

As an infrastructure, the model of social capital distinguishes subtly between different forms of association – for example, between bonding vs bridging capitals and strong vs weak ties and thick vs thin social capital.  These network insights are directly applicable to branding, and complement existing reputation management and brand-marketing principles, which may be overly narcissistic, binary and short-term.  Instead, developing a branding infrastructure informed by social capital would build the capacity to facilitate socially-centred, need-based networks to provide advocacy and endorsement as an incidental outcome of social interaction.

Finally, as an outcome of branding activity, the social capital facilitated by a brand could become a highly valuable alternative means of measuring its value – more predictive than generalised reputational metrics and more actionable than discounted cash-flow-based measures.  The necessary indicators of such social brand capital could be readily measured in a social media environment through observation of brand forums and analysis of the health of brand partnerships and the social depth and breadth of transformational initiatives. 

The prevailing trends in politics (social marketing), technology (social media), environment (environmental behaviour change) and commerce (social responsibility), will all create a need to formally integrate social capital considerations into brand practice, calling for a new, cross-disciplinary approach beyond the individualised simplicities of ‘rational choice’.  All these forces suggest the need for accelerating a ‘social branding’ approach as the theoretical foundation of a widespread revolution in social communications.

Tagged as: branding,CSR,web 4.0