Listening Employer Brands: How Data is Rewriting the Rules of Branding

WRITTEN BY: Jörgen Sundberg

How can employer brands benefit from becoming listening brands? How do you go about setting up a listening infrastructure? What are some of the typical pitfalls?

I spoke to JR Little, who is the author of “Listening Brands – How Data is Rewriting the Rules of Branding” to get the scoop.

Listen to the interview on iTunes, SoundCloud or keep reading for a summary of our conversation. And be sure to subscribe to the Employer Branding Podcast.

What’s the paradigm shift that you’ve seen in branding and marketing?

The paradigm shift, just straight out of the gate, it is that the people can now deliver a brand’s message more effectively than the brand itself. And the reason I feel and try to prove that this paradigm shift has happened is because I have worked in the old world of marketing, communication, and advertising, but now I’m working in the new world, which is very digital and data-centric. And I could see it; I could see a flip has happened. And I think that flip was created by the rise of social media.

Another thing in the book to build on this paradigm shift is I use this analogy of a megaphone, and it’s this idea that many, many years ago, the people with the megaphone in society were your governments, were your churches, etc. Then we came into the industrial age, and the people with the megaphone were brands through advertising, and that’s sort of like the “Mad Men” days. But now, and especially since 2010 I would say when social media started to become big, we’re now seeing that the people themselves, people like you and me, have the power and the ability to speak on behalf of brands.

If we think about what we interact with on a daily basis, we’re opening our phones many times throughout the day, and we’re looking at very social spaces like Facebook, or YouTube, or Instagram, or Twitter, or even a comment section on an article and the things that we’re consuming are things that people are sharing and they’re commenting on and they’re posting. It’s not like we’re sitting down and watching a TV and having ads fed to us anymore. Things have changed in that way.

Why do brands need to become listening brands?

I think, first and foremost, if you’re a marketer, it’s to preserve your job and preserve your career. And if you’re concerned about your brand, it’s to make sure your brand still has a way to connect and build a relationship with the consumers that matter because if consumers are connecting differently, then you have to know how to do that. In the book, I talk about why it’s essential to become a listening brand, and I talk about listening in a broad sense. I don’t mean merely listening for words but in terms of listening for signals, listening for signs, listening for words indeed, but looking for the clues that help us understand the needs of consumers better.

In the book, I also talk about how a lot of our conversations happen on social spaces, but they happen about cultural things. They’re not happening about category things, and brands are so accustomed to talking about their category, you know? “I have a running shoe. My running shoe is the most affordable,” or “My running shoe runs the fastest,” but that’s not really how we interact with brands anymore. We see them in Instagram posts, or we see them in our friends’ Facebook pictures. So, there’s a little bit of a change there in that we’re interacting and meeting brands in cultural scenarios and not necessarily at the shopping mall in a category context.

How do you become a listening brand?

I think the first thing is to recognize that there are new tools. There’s a new way of doing things. And I like to say, “Be prepared to totally flip the process that you’re used to,” and what I mean by that is in the “Mad Men” days, there was this process and this flow of talking to consumers, also talking at consumers, where some people sit around and they use their intuition, and they use their gut and they use maybe qualitative research to come up with this somewhat esoteric brand idea. And then that is turned into messaging, or propositions, or still, sort of intangible things, and then that’s reinterpreted into a campaign, and then the campaign is pushed across media, and the media is bought. And last but not least, you think about, “How is this going to work in a digital space?”

But I think today, because of what we can learn from all of the digital interactions we already have going if we’re a brand, those things create data. And if we look at that first, it might tell us things about our consumer we never would’ve been able to imagine with our intuition. It might tell us they’re a different makeup than who we thought they would be or who we were targeting. It might tell us they have interests that we never imagined that they had. It could even tell us geolocation, where they spend their time, what kind of phone they use during the day, and those things are clues and signs that help us to understand then what our brand needs to be to appeal to them.

Where do you see brands getting listening wrong?

There’s a lot of places. I think if I was to mention a few things, I think starting with the idea today of, “What can I say?” versus, “How can I help?” I think we still have a lot of marketers that trust their intuition and their gut and what they’ve done in the past, as opposed to what actually will resonate today, and ignoring the instances that are already showing interest in them, but they may not even know it. And this could be people that are asking questions in social spaces like, “How do I put this child’s car seat in the back of this brand new Chevrolet car?” That is a sign that there’s an audience there wanting to hear from you if you’re a brand, and so there has to be a willingness to listen and to respond to them.

How do you build an effective listening infrastructure?

I think this is where it gets very complicated. It really does, but I will break it down as best as I can, and I’ll even drop some names that could easily be Googled and looked up. But I think the first thing is talent. There is a talent challenge in that none of us have been taught to do this stuff in our business schools. We’re all learning as we go, and that’s one thing, but the talent has to be very curious. And there are already some tools with the significant partners; Twitter, Facebook, Google, even increasingly Amazon. They all have to some degree easily accessible means that let you know what people are saying, what people are interested in, and if they’re a match with who your consumer is. They’re also increasingly letting brands that spend a lot of money with them to match sort of CRN data to their data. So, if your company has the email address of a consumer, then you can use that email address to find them in some ways on some of these platforms, of course, protecting identity.

Those are like the significant places to start, but then if we were to get into the real niche players, there are the proper listening players, which is picking up on word clues, and that would be like a Crimson Hexagon or Pulsar. There are the players that help you respond to all these people who may be mentioning your brand or mentioning a topic you’re interested in, and that would be players like Lithium, Hootsuite or Sprout. And then some players are working more in the digital as data points, not necessarily as words, and this is players like DataSift or even matching different pools of data with a player like an Acxiom. But this is a bit of a rabbit hole; it can go deeper, and deeper, and deeper. But that’s the different layers.

Related: The Ultimate Guide to Social Command Centres

How can you ensure you understand the different types of data you’re getting?

I think there’s a couple of things that are important to understanding. Most good agencies or good marketers already have access to listening to social data that has been actively marked, tagged, handled by a consumer. But there’s increasingly the ability to listen to the especially social commentary that hasn’t been actively labeled or marked by that consumer. So, just picking up on words, and a couple of those players I mentioned like Crimson Hexagon and Pulsar can do that. But then there’s also a difference in say commentary, which is someone said something about the topic or said something about your brand in what they typed in a social space. And there’s also sentiment, and that’s more about mood, or feeling or do they think positively about your brand or the topic or negatively. And so, this idea of social data even in itself is now getting a lot more nuanced than it was, say, a year or two years ago.

What channels give brands the best results regarding listening?

For our clients at our agency, we have significant spend with Google and Facebook. They have the reach. Concerning the social landscape, you’ve got Facebook with Instagram, and they’ve got Messenger, and soon, probably in a year or two, they’ll start to do more with WhatsApp. And then regarding people’s motivations to find things, look for jobs, navigate the web, or even navigate their physical world, you’ve got Google. So between those two players, you’re getting a lot of amazing insights if you have the right relationship with them. And those would be the ones to start with for the insight learning, but for the actual listening in real-time, it would be the Crimson Hexagon or the Pulsar.

What’s the ROI of becoming a listening brand and how do you measure it?

The ROI question, I do not have a specific number, but I do have some things we look at. So, on a fundamental level, if you’re listening and understand the insights, or even listening to what people are saying, you won’t waste budget on making things you don’t need. And if you don’t waste budget on things you don’t need, you obviously won’t waste media spend. I think on another level, you will go fishing where the fish are. You won’t miss audiences that are already expressing some degree of an interest in you by mentioning your topic or mentioning your brand. And then last, and this one’s harder to prove in the short term, but it’s that sort of long-term value. Are you getting a better return over the long term because your brand metrics have improved, like a brand for me or a brand that I trust? And there are some players out there that are looking at that as well with Nielsen and Edelman, the long-term impact of resonating with culture and being a responsive brand. So there are a few different levels. The ideal would be to have some better attribution so that we could get this value packaged up in more of a short-term, but right now it’s more about the long-term sort of resetting the brand and making the brand appealing to consumers.

What are some listening brands that are doing it right and why?

These brands that are owning an area where they now have a right to talk about something other than themselves are getting it right, and I’ll give you some examples. So, Volkswagen with film, or Guinness with rugby, or Red Bull with adventure sports, or Stella Artois with film, or even Pampers diapers in America with e-books and reading. These are brands that have listened. They’ve got to know their consumers. They understand that while the association might not be straightforward, there is a correlation between their audience and this other territory that their audience cares about. And that’s why, as I mentioned earlier, that’s why culture is so important. So you earn the right to be a part of the conversation around something that maybe isn’t even obviously connected with what you make, or do, or provide.

So I think those are some of the ones that are getting it right. I think if we look at a brand like Adidas, and Adidas in the U.S. put out an Instagram picture of what looked like two women’s feet, or shoes, with two women in an embrace on Valentine’s Day. So they were apparently making a point or saying something about same-sex relationships, and the way they handled the positive sentiment and the negative sentiment, I think, made them look incredible. I think it made them look human. It made them look likable, and they have a point of view, and they have something to say beyond, “We make shoes.”

The last little set of examples would be these brands who are disrupting other brands’ business, and I’m talking about your Ubers, or your Airbnbs, or your Netflix. They’re more providing a helpful, useful service than they are providing or making overtly marketing messages. And an example of one of those that has done well but where a more traditional brand has also responded well would be Dollar Shave Club. And Dollar Shave Club is this company where you can order your shaving razor blades directly through the mail and save money. But Gillette has responded with creating their shave club, so they’ve paid attention, saw the change, saw the trend, listened to what consumers want, and responded with the right response.

What are your favorite social media channels?

I…and it’s one that surprises a lot of people. I really like LinkedIn. I do because I love long-form content. I think that platform is doing a pretty good job with letting thought leaders self-publish. I enjoy LinkedIn a lot. I look at Twitter to get my headlines. I follow Instagram to see how brands are creating the fantasy around themselves.

Those are the main western players, but then I also try to make sure I know what some of the eastern players are at least doing, because sometimes the western players learn from the eastern players, and those eastern players might be Tencent with WeChat, it might be LINE in Japan, or it might be Kakao in Korea. And then every once in a while, I’ll look to make sure I know what sort of innovations they’re doing because we can usually expect that the Silicon Valley players will do it after them.

Does Branding Still Make a Difference?

Yes and no. I think we all want clickbait, so we have to be a bit provocative with our headlines. But yes and no, and I’ll tell you why I like that. I want to say no because I think people have a very distorted view of how a brand is built today, so we can’t use the same brand-building tools to make a brand. But if we think of a brand as this intangible, valuable association to a name, a product, or a service, then yes. But the way we go about building that intangible value is very different today than say it was a year to five, ten years ago.

Follow JR on Twitter @J_R_Little and don’t forget to subscribe to the Employer Branding Podcast.


Our newsletter is exclusively curated by our CEO, Jörgen Sundberg, for leaders who make decisions about talent. Subscribe for updates on The Employer Branding Podcast, new articles, eBooks, research and events we’re working on.


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