icandiCQ strategist, Tracy Kirchhoffer is in Chicago attending the IABC 2012 World Conference.  The focus at Day 3 of the conference was on branding, social media and the challenges business leaders face in a changing world.

Branding: leadership sets the tone
You need to cement your customers and staff to your brand, making it more than just a fad, more than a product, not even just a brand – but a ‘Lovemark’. The Lovemark concept was coined by Charles Saatchi and is the brand you just don’t want to (and can’t) live without.

Most offerings need to use a preference strategy. When the product is in a crowded market category and it’s almost impossible to gain entry, it’s all about the emotional connection. Customers do not always make rational decisions – they need a story to influence their decision. The same principles apply to your internal clients – your employees.

Telling the story is becoming standard in presenting yourself, your idea, your product, and your company. It’s key to getting people’s attention. The real shift for branding is that it cannot be thought up and activated by the agency. The leadership team of the company must set the tone of the brand.

Social media: you cannot afford to ignore it any longer
Social media gives everyone a voice and the consumer is becoming very aware of disconnects between the image you present, what you say you do and how you actually behave – and is quick to voice this, when the disconnect is obvious. The disconnect is a big risk. The biggest disconnect in business today, is that management are focused on the stakeholder and not the consumer or the employee. You cannot be focused on both. In the social world, you have a diversity of channels and technology, but you have to speak with ONE VOICE. This has to be across all channels and at every customer touch point – which includes social media. Brand reputation is not ‘the thing’, or what you say about it, it is in the mind and heart of the customer and it will move up and down depending on what people experience and communicate about your product to others.

With social media it is now impossible for companies to ignore their employees. You cannot afford for them to be unjustly unhappy. It’s common sense, but research shows that if your staff are discontent, it’s highly likely that your customers are dissatisfied too. That disconnect needs attention. Stakeholders who want returns in the long term will need to stop navel gazing and realise that they live in communities that are more connected than ever before. They need to let management focus on staff that will focus on the consumer and in doing so, they will get better quality results in the long term.

This theory is being supported by studies from sociologists and scientists of human behaviour, according to a new book, The Hyper-Social Organization. A great point made was that ‘research brings people together’ and supports the key theme that ‘humans are built for reciprocity’, it’s a reflex.

Social media is obviously a hot topic but it seems that while there’s a lot of data and stories around on how to use social media for marketing and PR, big organizations have been slower on the uptake of social media in their communication mix. Having a presence is not negotiable any longer. You have to be in the social domain – internally and externally – so the sooner it is strategised, the better. A great tip for smaller companies, to prevent the paralysis or the plunge into everything simultaneously, is to start with one or two sites and test them.

Content is king for engagement. The real buzz is around equipping your employees to share information about the business and its offering with their social networks. Everyone is responsible for this from the leadership down. Everyone needs to start engaging with the basic tools of social media, especially the tools that their friends or communities are using.

Leadership: balancing the future with today’s realities
The issues around human behaviour, values, culture, staff engagement, diversity, global culture, technological changes and the notion of living in the 21st Century are huge challenges for leaders. The trend seems to be that business leadership is now being thought of as taking on more of a facilitator role – a role that must coordinate people and teams, who must be open to acknowledging new groups, new ways, and new interactions with different types of people.

The CEO must balance the expectations of the future with the realities of today and must be looking from the outside in, while the Chief Communication Officer, must look from the inside out.

Leaders need to be assisted to reflect who they are as individuals and supported in their communication. Again, the company story, the brand story and the strategy story need to be clear and compelling, appealing to the emotions. Shareholders are important but they are not the audience key to making the business work, the employees are. Leaders must clearly articulate the vision and the strategy.

As a business leader or communication professional, are you setting the tone for your brand – building it from the inside out – are you talking with ONE voice, are you embracing social media as a tool for engagement and are you clearly articulating your organisation’s vision and strategy?