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SMU 101 - Session 06: Responsive Brands

Purpose/Aim of this session

In this session you will learn what it is to be a responsive brand. What do we mean by responsive? Listening to your audience as well as speaking with your audience, sharing with your audience and even learning from your audience. 

Learning Aims for this session:

  • You will develop an understanding of brand positioning
  • You will understand the importance of branding statements
  • You will explore the concept of framing 'difference' in branding messages

Learning Outcomes for this session:

At the end of this session, you will be able to:

  • Define what brand positioning is
  • Identify the effective methods to position a brand
  • Create your own brand statement
  • Frame the benefits of your brand

How this Session Works:

  1. Read through the Overview that accompanies this session. This provides an overall context for the session.
  2. Work your way through the items on the Preparatory section that accompanies this session.
  3. Listen to the Lecture that accompanies this session.
  4. Work your way the branding scenario in the "Scenario" tab. The scenario is a practical exercise activity to develop your initial understanding of the branding concepts outlined in this session.
  5. Work your way the template in the "Template" tab. The template will support you as you take the first steps in developing your understanding of your brand.
  6. You can browse through some carefully selected material in the "Reading Room" tab. These materials will build upon your initial Brand concepts.

SMU 101 Session 6 Study Activities

  • Overview
  • Preparatory Activities
  • Lecture
  • Scenarios
  • Template
  • Reading Room

image representing the responsive brand

SMU tutor Alex di Savoia developed a powerful brand position statement for Aardvark Music Ltd: we listen and we learn. It was an ethos embedded in every aspect of the label - both internal and external. It's what differentiated Aardvark Records from any other label and music publishing business. It was (and remains) the keystone to its success. It's what enables it to be a completely responsive brand.

The rest of this course builds upon your knowledge and understanding of the first four sessions. For this session, understanding the importance of strategic branding storytelling, the main elements of the story you want your brand to tell, understanding how audiences perceive brands, and understanding brand positioning come together to form the basis of being a responsive brand.

The other SMU courses teach you how to use specific tools to respond to an audience in different ways.

For now, in this session, our work is to get you to consider how important it is to be a responsive brand. By the end of this session, you should have an understanding of the tools you will use to engage in responsive branding behavior.

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Think about that Aardvark Records' positioning statement we gave earlier: we listen and we learn. Have you ever heard a record label say, much less do, such a thing? Do you have the perception that your opinion matters to a record label? "The Big Four" - that's how the major labels are seen. They are perceived to be an oligarchy. As such, there are no perceptible differences between Sony BMG, Warner, EMI and Universal. They are indistinguishable from one another and inter-changeable. Think about that Aardvark position one last time. How radical a departure from the music industry's norms, in terms of perception, is that statement?

There are only a handful of industries which are rewarded for being non-responsive and remote. Couture fashion houses (Prada, Chanel, Dior, Armani, etc) are unique. Audiences actually reward them for being somewhat remote. Their brand power is in their mystique. As an audience, we don't want to dispel the illusion of these brands. Yet, couture fashion houses have crafted strategic branding storytelling into an art form. They have the power to respond on their own terms.

Luxury automotive brands (Jaguar, Mercedes Bendz, Bentley, Alfa Romero, etc.), luxury perfumes - any authentic luxury brand - works along similar lines to fashion couture houses. They respond to audiences on their own terms. They own those conversations. They are the exception to the rules which we will outline in this session.

The pitfalls of not being responsive have been played out over and over again in the music industry and the Hollywood film industry. Distant, aloof, not engaged in developing authentic relationships with the general pubic (or indeed, any relationship at all) have authored much of these industries' woes. They want to be perceived as aspirational and elitist - yet rely entirely on pedestrian sales. It's an equation that simply does not add up. It's a formula, that has not, and will not, work. Neither industry has brands that offer an experience. Neither industry attempts to establish an emotional connection with their respective audiences. Music and film have much to learn from the gaming industry. Gaming is the entertainment industry's most stunning success story. Why? Gaming companies are responsive brands. They understand the importance of developing relationships with their audience, sharing with them, rewarding them...and listening to them. 

Higher Education is another industry that fails to grasp changes in the branding landscape. While Universities have incorporated social media, content marketing, etc into their marketing activities, they use them in the same manner as print advertising, direct mail and other traditional marketing activities. They fail to have true brands. They fail to establish that emotional connection that is an intrinsic element of a brand. Like music and film, they remain aloof and distant. Universities pump out constant 'buy this' messages rather than craft strategic brand stories. Like film and music, this strategy has impacted on audiences' perceptions of universities...and their student enrollment figures.

If an audience perceives that a brand is just 'in it for the money' - look no further than the film and music industries to see where that perception leads.

Brands need to make revenue. Any audience understands this. However, we have to create brand perceptions that aren't about money. Sales and 'buy this' messages are all about revenue. They don't equate to an experience or an emotion. Understanding this basic point is crucial.

We live an era dominated by a backlash against the accumulation of wealth; especially the conspicuous accumulation of wealth. Think about the previous session where we outlined the importance of branding experiences like sharing and reciprocity. When audiences hear the word 'billionaire', what do they associate with that one word? Social inequity? Pollution? Greed? Racism? Arrogance? Worse?


  1. The video below builds on your awareness of brand voice, or brand personality and it's relevance / importance. A thorough understanding of the voice your brand will adopt and live by will better enable you to communicate with confidence.

  2. Responsiveness frames the kinds of positive relationships and perceptions a brand seeks to establish with its audience.

    In the short video below, Tim Leberecht discusses how it’s next to impossible to control the conversation about your brand online. Instead, he teaches us three ways to embrace and enable free-form online conversations. This is a powerful and effective approach that helps companies to become more humble, more vulnerable, and more human.

  3. One of the ways brands have become more open is through the use of social media. We've built an entire course around this: SMU 103: Social Media Marketing. In the short and hilarious video below, Alexis Ohanian of Reddit discusses the power of reciprocity, sharing and responsiveness.

  4. Angela Ahrendts and Christopher Bailey have transformed the way Burberry engages with the world: from its consumers to its associates, leveraging technology to share its pure brand vision through content-rich, compelling storytelling. We didn't include this video in Session 1 for one basic reason: this video stresses the importance of establishing trust, being an authentic brand...and the underlying theme of responsiveness. It also encapsulates the concepts and knowledge that you've developed over the first four sessions of the course.


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The lecture for this session are two videos from Google's 2014 Think Branding Conference.

In the video below, conference keynote speaker, Sasha Strauss, delivers a discussion about the divide between companies and what's referred to as 'Generation' or 'GenC' for short. Gen C is a powerful new force in culture and commerce. as of 2014, Sixty-five percent are under 35. That's the classic definition. In reality, they span the generations: from Baby Boomers to Silver Surfers to generations X and Y. Gen C is empowered by technology to search out authentic content that they consume across all platforms and all screens, whenever and wherever they want.

In his talk, Strauss asks the question "How do you sell to people who don't want you to tell them what to buy?". Or put another way: "How do breaks speak to people who don't want to listen?". The answer? By brands and their audiences finding common ground and finding a common topic in order to engage with one another. This discussion incorporates the main themes covered in the course so far. You should be applying what you've learned to-date as Strauss raises each of his main points.

There are some excellent points for start-up companies as well as unbranded companies.

In the second video, Katie Elfering discusses the importance and priority audiences place on the forms our connections with them take. Elfering addresses the psychological process audiences engage in within the act of connecting online - and an online audience's need to be creators.  In her talk she raises important questions and observances around the notions of psychology and responsiveness.

While she specifically talks about GenC, the points Elfering raises are universal.


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Here's a real world situation faced by Alex when he was with Aardvark Records. Let it serve as a scenario example.

Aardvark, like any record label, sells CDs. For the purposes of the scenario, we won't get into the whole process of CD manufacturing.  However, suffice to say that a master CD is produced and sent to the record label for quality assurance before the final manufacturing and distribution can begin. Aardvark had a long-standing relationship with its CD manufacturer and distribution company. There had never been a quality issue or problem in all the years the company had dealt with this service provider.

Since a problem in quality had never arisen, the decision was taken to expedite turn-around times by dispensing with the quality assurance check.  The service provider was given a green light to simply produce and distribute the master CDs sent to it by the label. All went well for the first couple of releases.

However, eventually, there was a problem with one of the label's releases. There was a fault in the CD manufacturing process which resulted in a skip occurring halfway through the third song. The CD skipped all the way to the fifth song. That wasn't the listening experience Aardvark wanted listeners to have...and it was on every CD that had been manufactured and shipped out.

"We listen and we learn."  It quickly became apparent on Twitter and Facebook that there was a problem. We knew within 48 hours of the CD being sold that there was a big issue with the CD. So how did Alex handle it? With utter transparency. Aardvark's marketing team immediately used all the major social media platforms (including putting a note on the promotional music videos featured on YouTube for that album) notifying the band's fans that there was a problem with the CD, what the problem was, apologized (sincerely and without finger pointing) and what would be done to rectify the situation. For everyone who bought a copy (and there were many!), the promise was made - and kept - that they would receive a new, autographed, replacement copy at the company's expense.

Alex's rapid response, transparency, honesty and compensation created new advocates for the label. Why? No one could recall a label responding so quickly or with such honesty and generosity. Not ever. The record label immediately reached out to the people who bought the album. They didn't have to come to the label. Nor did they have to ask the label to do anything. Aardvark didn't give them time to. It wasn't just 'good business' to Aardvark that this situation was handled in the manner that it was. It was the only ethical thing to do. It was everything its position statement claimed the business to be.

The upshot? Label advocates actively chastising people freely sharing its artists' music online through the various torrent sites, file sharing sites and online forums.

And, of course, the learning bit - the label went returned to its old quality control model.

Every business should have a risk assessment - those key factors that are bound to go wrong at some point. A risk assessment should cover every aspect of a business. Your brand's reputation will rely on the time and the manner in which you publicly address issues. Not familiar with what a risk assessment is? This is an easy-to-understand resource that explains it: Designing an Effective Risk Matrix  There are plenty of good, free risk assessment examples for a myriad of industries online. We suggest doing a search on: risk assessment + [name of your industry].

An example of a search engine string would be: risk assessment + outdoor photography

Alternatively, how will you chose to respond when your audience gives you a pat on the back online? How will you keep up with the online chatter about your brand - and how will you respond?

  1. In the video below, Rowan designer Martin Storey discusses the benefits of social media, and how brands can respond quickly to consumer suggestions.

  2. Nike has branding budgets the size of which town councils would envy. However, we can all learn from the big boys and girls working for top international brands with deep, deep pockets. We include the video below as another case study - but one on a completely different level of responsiveness. What Nike did with this campaign was to introduce multiple response layers. We suggest pausing the video as it runs and really think about each response point the Nike brand played with and owned. Think about new and innovative ways you could incorporate responsiveness for your own brand. On the surface, the scale of this branding exercise seems enormous. Logistically speaking, it was an enormous endeavor. Yet, take each response point and boil it down to its most basic element, you can begin to see how you could incorporate an aspect or two in creating your own responsive brand tailored to your own specific audience(s). What would you change to put your distinctive brand stamp on it?

  3. Read the short article, answering the questions it asks: Craig, R. 2013. Scenario Planning: Social Response Strategy, Randall Craig
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The template suggested below has been provided for you to develop your own brand responsiveness plan.

The WFF Agency has created a simple and easy to use communication template. we suggest familiarizing yourself with it in order to begin thinking about how you will be relaying the strategic branding stories you will be sharing with your audience. You won't use all of the outlets included in the template. However, we're pretty sure you will be using quite a few of them. For Item #11 - Evaluating Success - think about responsiveness alongside evaluation. In other words, adding an element of 'listening' and 'responding' alongside evaluation. How will you listen and how will you respond?  The template can be accessed via:


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The Reading Room for this session provides carefully selected resources for you to further explore the basic components of brands.

Our first recommending reading has been like a bible to us. Published in 2007, the data/figures are obviously dated and obsolete. As it's a report for MySpace - it's heavily skewed towards the (then) glory of MySpace. However, data and figures aside, the online relationship dynamic it covers between audiences and brands remains relevant to this day. While you will see this document again in SMU 103: Social Media Marketing, we feel the information it covers about responsiveness merits its inclusion in this session:

Never Ending Friending: A Journey Into Social Networking. 2007. Fox Interactive Media, Report for MySpace.

The second recommended reading is a report covering some of the worlds strongest brands - along with figures and commentaries about audience engagement and brand responsiveness.:

Brandz Top 100 Most Valuable Global Brands 2013, WPP.

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