Back in December I posted an entry entitled, “What carbs can teach us about branding.” With the holiday feasts around the corner, I thought it would be good fun to walk through brand relationship strategies using snack isle brands as examples.

To briefly recap, businesses—for-profit and nonprofit alike—typically manage a family of products and programs, and the perceived relationships between those offerings and the “master” brand matters. That’s ultimately how credit and equity accrue in the right places.

With that in mind, snack isle mainstays Mars, Nabisco, Pepperidge Farms, and Entenmann’s provided a clear set of examples to help frame thinking around brand relationships, which exist on a continuum from product-focused to master brand-focused.

So what does this mean in the world of social media?

Social media provides marketers and brand stewards myriad new opportunities to engage those that matter most in meaningful, two-way dialogues. Some say the price you pay for this increased engagement is a loss of control. While you can’t control the conversations, you can work to control the brand context in which they take place.

Social media involves people just as much as programs and products. How you connect to and leverage the power of your people will play a huge role in your success online. And with brand diffusion a continuing threat, managing how your social media outposts are positioned verbally and visually is vital.

Master branding in social media

In master branding (exemplified last time by Entenmann’s), all the energy is put into building the master brand, and programs and products are afforded no unique identity. (As such, you can’t really master brand people!) For organizations looking to extend a single, high-level value proposition across a number of social media outposts, master branding makes a lot of sense.

The New York Times certainly thinks so, as they provide an easy case study in managing brand relationships on Twitter. The master brand profile is, obviously, @nytimes. And in exactly the same way Entenmann’s brands cake and strudel, the New York Times master brands key content offerings including @nytimesscience, @nytimeshealth, @nytimessports, @nytimestravel, and @nytimesstyle via a consistent, plain-speak naming convention and standardized background and profile image designs.

Master branding, not just for snacks anymore.

Master branding, not just for snacks anymore.

For a master-branded blogging example, look to Accenture. The Accenture Technology Labs Blog, the Accenture Blog for Internal IT, and Accenture’s Green IT Blog are, again, master branded in much the way as Entenmann’s cake and strudel. While Accenture has a number of blogs with a couple of different design approaches, all share a plain-speak naming convention and a master brand-focused design approach. Accenture takes a master branding approach with all its communications, and has clearly committed to it in the social media space as well.

In both examples, while connections are forged within discrete content areas, all the equity flows to the master brand. Depending on your goals, offerings, content strategies, resources, and the opportunities before you, master branding likely makes sense for some portion of your social media communications architecture.

Source branding in social media

Source branding is about promoting two brands at once, connecting on multiple levels, and encouraging cross selling. Of course social media is a place for much more than “brands,” it’s a place for people. And whereas master-branded social media content may indeed lean more towards the company line, source branding is a great way to bring people into the equation and create real dialogue while also building equity in the source (i.e. master) brand.

Looking again at the New York Times, its high-profile personalities on Twitter employ a simple name and bio convention that communicates both the source (New York Times) brand and the elevated personality brand. Thomas Friedman is a brand; his Twitter handle is @NYTimesFriedman, and his bio clearly states where he works. The background design is the same as the earlier examples, but Mr. Friedman’s picture is used in place of the Times’ logo. The same approach is used for other high-profile personalities like Maureen Dowd (@NYTimesDowd), Frank Rich (@NYTimesRich), and more. This type of tight source branding is reminiscent of the Pepperidge Farms examples shown last time.

Source branding: making the most of high-profile personalities

Source branding: making the most of high-profile personalities.

Of course sometimes communications need a little more autonomy, and source branding can provide much needed flexibility. In the blogging world, successful blogs like General Motors’ Fastlane and Southwest Airlines’ Nuts About Southwest show how a little distance between a blog and its source brand can provide for a more engaging experience. While still clearly connected visually to GM and Southwest, a looser, more casual approach provides breathing room that enables engagement around content well beyond corporate press releases.

Do you have products, programs, personalities, and / or content that has (or could have) equity in and of itself? Are there resources in place to keep it all healthy? If so, source branding in social media is a great way to let aspects of your business flourish—meeting audiences where they are and all the while steering ample credit to the master brand.

Endorsed / product branding in social media

For instances where near-complete autonomy is appropriate, endorsed and/or product branding provides a means for very thin connections to the master brand. Think of the “endorsing” Nabisco triangle on a box of Oreas from last time, or the nearly invisible Mars presence on a Snickers wrapper (or its Twitter feed for that matter!).

While a great market share / penetration strategy in the physical world, smaller organizations should be careful about endorsed / product branding in social media: unless audiences read the fine print, they might not realize who is actually behind the online experience they’re enjoying. That’s just fine for Mars, Proctor & Gamble, and the like, but most of us simply don’t have the resources to support an array of discrete product brands.

That said, if you have a need to maintain a social media outpost that strays significantly from your corporate / institutional voice, or want to subtly market or educate on particular themes, endorsed and product branding make a lot of sense. For instance, Quicken’s What’s the Diff? blog—in name, look, and tone—bears little to no resemblance to master-branded Quicken communications save for the “endorsing” Quicken logo in the upper right. Quicken is using an endorsed branding strategy to engage people in a casual, seemingly non-sales, environment. Of course the Quicken homepage is an easy click away.

Endorsed branding: creating a more casual, sales-free environment

Endorsed branding: creating a casual, sales-free environment.

Similarly, Adobe maintains a large index of both corporate blogs and largely autonomous employee blogs. By allowing employees to blog in their own voice—and at arm’s length from the master brand—Adobe has developed a corps of enthusiastic ambassadors for its products. And while many of the blogs have a unique look and feel that has little to do with Adobe brand, the sites all link back to Adobe and include at least a mention of the Adobe brand, if not the logo.

Product branding: sometimes the best connection is little to connection

Product branding: sometimes the best connection is little connection at all.

Sure, it might take some intestinal fortitude to engage in thinly branded social media communications, and while it might not make sense for core products and services, it could be the perfect strategy for “blinded” promotion. It’s also a great way to endorse your people, and for them to endorse you—leveraging the power of personality on your brand’s behalf. Just be sure to have appropriate guidelines in place ahead of time.

Matter where it matters to be, and get the right credit

Social media is about providing opportunities for connections that matter, thus it’s not a place to try and be all things to all people, all at once. People expect to be able to home in on what they want to connect with, but that shouldn’t come at the expense of your master brand.

By crafting a social media architecture—one that considers content, desired outcomes, and the appropriate mix of brand relationships—organizations and businesses of all stripes can create opportunities for dialogue that resonate and build brand.