Effective Branding in the Social Era

By: Newel Hirst

Six years ago, former New Zealand footballer Tim Brown had an idea that would change the direct-to-consumer shoe industry. After receiving a grant from New Zealand’s wool industry and several donations from a successful Kickstarter campaign, Brown and his business partner Joey Zwillinger built a global brand, Allbirds, now worth more than $1.4 billion.[1]

He achieved this success, however, without including any brand logos on the shoes themselves. Speaking about his brand, Brown said, “I certainly believe that the evolution of brand isn’t about logo and mark, it’s about story and feeling.”[2] He also noted in an interview with Joanna Stern of the Wall Street Journal that the majority of Allbird’s sales don’t come from social media advertising.[3]

What, then, is the secret sauce for helping emerging brands grow quickly? Clearly Allbirds is doing something right, and academic research seems to agree as well: Emerging brands can find success in quick growth by developing their brand narrative, taking advantage of social commerce platforms, and reducing advertising spending.

Developing A Brand Narrative

In March of 2019, Park City-based lifestyle audio brand Skullcandy removed all posts from their Instagram account in a calculated risk to redefine its online presence. Skullcandy titled the experiment “12 Moods” and released engaging new content over the next twelve months.[4] Each month they would center the content around a chosen mood, such as “Fresh,” and coordinate it with a specific color, music artist, athlete, and special product drops in their social media posts.

Over the course of the year, Skullcandy gained hundreds of thousands of new followers, increased interaction on social platforms, and increased product sales. How? That year, Skullcandy redefined its story and brand. Skullcandy now markets itself as a “lifestyle audio brand,” where lifestyle is just as important as the music one hears. The 12 Moods campaign was the first to tell that story.

However, the stories that brands tell aren’t narratives, and many brand stories are hard to define and even harder to dissect. In many ways, a brand’s story is a work of art, though effective stories also leverage industry standard practices to expand their impact and incite virality.

Use Social Commerce

In recent years social media networks and e-commerce platforms have begun to merge into something new: social commerce platforms. For example, Instagram and Facebook have introduced integrated stores to their platforms, and sites such as Etsy allow users to engage in an online community to discuss products and brands.

In a study of brand performance on social networks, Canadian researchers noted that “the number of buyers who follow a seller. . . is commonly considered as the most valuable asset a seller has. Sellers with high [numbers of followers] can benefit from its information, social status, and social capital effects, resulting in enhanced e-commerce performance.”[5]

In the case of Skullcandy, the company was able to increase their followers by marketing their story and feel within their social media content. They capitalized on their brand’s strengths in the lifestyle community and promoted content that resonated there.

Another group of researchers noted that “the strength of Facebook “likes” becomes a decisive factor in users’ e-commerce purchases and recommendations.”[6] Most people have heard of the oft-repeated adage “everybody’s doing it,” and on social media, likes build social capital for the brand and convey that to a base of followers.

Finally, the Canadian researchers also discovered that “the combined effects of social status, peer support and social learning outweigh the impact of competition, information leakage and social imitation.”[7] This means that companies can succeed by embracing a marketing strategy focused on gaining social capital and spending less time and resources trying to mitigate negative impacts to their business.

Reduce Advertising Spending

In recent years, the trend in global ad spending has shifted online. This is especially true in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, where many companies are cutting advertising budgets, spending less on magazines, television, and other media.

In addition to shifting to online advertising, it was noted in a recently published paper that “rather than focusing on paid media, in which a brand pays to advertise its new product, brands are paying more attention to earned media, in which consumers are the communication channel” and that “in the age of social media, electronic word of mouth . . . has become a powerful source of social influence and virality.”[9]

By reducing ad spend, or the money spent on advertising campaigns, brands are freed up to spend money on innovation instead; “product innovativeness stimulates online consumer engagement and influences new product performance.”

While completely ditching advertising isn’t the right solution for every brand, finding ways to reduce ad spending can not only free up resources for innovation but also put brands in a position to find unconventional ways to engage consumers, especially in driving electronic word of mouth.

It’s hard to put a price on unconventional thinking, and it’s even harder to think unconventionally, but such thinking is a hallmark of brands that experience massive growth. Tesla doesn’t pay for traditional advertising, Birddogs uses almost offensive language in their advertisements to appeal to a specific customer base, Wendy’s streams video games, Allbirds minimizes their logo to focus on producing carbon neutral shoes, and many other brands use innovative approaches to marketing.

Find Your Stride

As research continues to demonstrate the effectiveness of consumer engagement on brand success, social commerce platforms will continue to become the predominant way of growing a brand.

For emerging brands, this means adapting early to social commerce platforms and delivering a well-crafted brand story. In many cases, it means ditching traditional advertising methods in favor of innovation. The marketing landscape will continue to change, but there will always be a need for brands to engage with their followers.


[1] Gallantway, “Allbirds: A Detailed Growth Marketing Analysis on How The Company Acquires and Converts Customers,” Medium, GoBeyond.AI: E-Commerce Magazine, September 12, 2019 https://medium.com/gobeyond-ai/see-how-direct-to-consumer-darling-allbirds-acquires-and-converts-customers-online-77a6f4b57078

[2] Monica and Andy, “The Co-Founder and Co-CEO of Allbirds on Building a Brandless Brand,” Monica & Andy blog.monicaandandy.com/podcast/tim-brown-allbirds/ (retrieved October 31, 2020).

[3] Stern, Joanna. “In the Elevator With Allbirds CEO Tim Brown.” The Wall Street Journal, Dow Jones & Company, November 27, 2018, https://www.wsj.com/video/series/in-the-elevator-with/in-the-elevator-with-allbirds-ceo-tim-brown/65922B58-8F17-4F13-927B-E48D29840CA0.

[4] “Skullcandy Launches ’12 Moods:’ A Monthly Celebration Of How Music Makes Us Feel.” PR Newswire: News Distribution, Targeting and Monitoring, March 6, 2019, https://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/skullcandy-launches-12-moods-a-monthly-celebration-of-how-music-makes-us-feel-300807593.html.

[5] Wang, Shan, and Fang Wang. “Network Prominence and E-Store Performance in Social Marketplace: A Nuanced Typology and Empirical Evidence.” Science Direct, July 12, 2019, https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S1567422320300685?via%3Dihub.

[6] Bhattacharyya, Samadrita and Bose, Indranil. “S-Commerce: Influence of Facebook Likes on Purchases and Recommendations on a Linked e-Commerce Site.” Science Direct, August 24, 2020, https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S016792362030138X#:~:text=We%20find%20that%20likes%20on,the%20linked%20e%2Dcommerce%20site.&text=In%20case%20of%20a%20low,commerce%20and%20direct%20e%2Dcommerce.

[7] Wang and Wang, “Social Marketplace.”

[8] Chartr. “Bye Bye Billboards.” 10 July. (retrieved October 31, 2020)

[9] Nguyen, Hang T., and Chaudhuri, Malika. “Making New Products Go Viral and Succeed.” Science Direct, October 23, 2018, https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0167811618300521.

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