The word hack has various, sometimes negative connotations: chopping something down, a horse for ordinary riding, a writer with little imagination or a dry cough. We recently read headlines about Russian hackers stealing information from the Democratic National Committee. More positively, hackathon competitions help kids learn to code and deliver new innovations, and “life hacks” improve our daily lives.
The definitive meaning of a tech hack — solving a problem or fixing an inefficient system — equates to what successful brand reputation managers do each day. Brand hacking involves taking complex communications challenges and developing unique solutions ranging from very basic and tactical to far more complicated and strategic.
The brand hack, however, is more easily said than done. It requires a mindset and an environment involving six key components:
Steve Jobs, Marc Andreessen, Elon Musk and Bill Gates all exemplify big ideas. They avoided the easy way out and aimed high, dared to think differently and offered unique ideas. In shaping brand reputation, marketers must do the same. Strong marketing begins with a big idea. While working with H&R Block, we suggested that we build their brand reputation among millennials through two humor-based campaigns, one calling for a tax break for people with mustaches and one lampooning hipsters. Both of these risks paid off; the mustache campaign in particular helped drive the company’s best-performing year.
Focus On Results
More often than not, human nature inherently pushes us to check off the box and use tools that we feel comfortable with. Brand hacking, on the other hand, requires a channel-agnostic approach to marketing that focuses solely on the end result. While sitting in on meetings with CMOs and chief communications officers, I’ve witnessed countless budget battles between the heads of PR and brand communications. Instead, they should be working together to deliver a unified message. That’s why, whenever we approach either a short-term campaign or a longer-term reputation management play, we create the baseline concept and outline the execution of it across all available channels: media relations, organic social media, paid social, traditional advertising and search marketing, among others.
Know Your Partners
When stepping up to the altar with a business partner or client, it’s wise to know what you’re getting into. A strategic marketing vision or tolerance for a hack must be relatively shared. When we have failed spectacularly, it’s been because we proceeded without recognizing that the client had a singular unflinching viewpoint on how to achieve success. When we created a digital campaign for CafePress around moving the Super Bowl to Saturday that presented minimal sales opportunities, we had a willing partner in the then-CEO of the company who understood it was a longer-term brand building play. However, this month, we’re concluding an abject failure of a relationship with a well-known national brand because we simply never had a shared vision, culture or methodology on how to achieve success.
Substantiate With Data
Today, quality data virtually grows on trees. Platforms like evolve24 and NetBase can track conversations about nearly any topic. So if you truly believe and are passionate about a hack, substantiate your beliefs with data relative to how it can succeed. Earlier this year, before we presented a social content strategy to a major spirits brand, we conducted audience research. We dove deep into the brand’s social following, looked at what other brands their fans followed, examined what activities they posted about and combed their posts for keywords. All of this data better informed our approach and enabled a far smoother reception for the strategy.
Have A Backup
Come to the table with a hack that stretches boundaries, but always have a safety net in your back pocket. For example, we developed an anti-texting while driving campaign for an auto dealer association. The concept was branded with an eye toward breaking through the clutter, and was initially called, “Keep It In Your Pants.” But we knew the association’s members would more than likely not approve the concept, so we had four conservative backups ready and waiting.
Big ideas are great, but execution is where the rubber meets the road. This can be particularly true if you don’t have a big budget and thus cannot afford to paint everything in paid media with the concept. If you’re willing to make promises and stake your relationship on it, you need to follow through. When we worked on a reputation management campaign for a large university highlighting the school’s impact on local innovation, our budget was tiny so we knew the content had to be humorous and shareable. We beta tested the content to ensure it would have the impact we needed, and it proved out. Alternatively, we wanted to close out the H&R Block campaign with a bang by having an event we hoped would attract a large crowd and media. Due to a number of complications — some which were our own doing — it ended with a whimper instead.
Hacks are risky and outcomes vary. While some have blown up in our faces, we’ve been fortunate to experience successful hacks more often than not while working to solve communications problems. In the end, success hinges on choosing partners wisely, daring to offer fresh thinking, substantiating proposed hacks with data, and executing with a pinpoint precision focused on achieving a goal rather than being married to a singular marketing communications channel.
Do I want to be thought of as a “hack”? Certainly not if you’re talking horses, but I’ll take being a brand hacker any day of the week.
*This post was originally published on Forbes’ agency council blog. If you care to review several self-congratulatory Elasticity hacks, below I outline my favorites, both strategic and tactical.