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How to build a social-first strategy with Born Social

Join ContentCal and Born Social for a session on how to make the pivot towards social-first marketing.

Sophie Thompson
8th December 2021

The social first brand is a piece of thinking released at the start of 2021, from global social media agency, Born Social. It looks at how the next great brands will be built and was carefully overseen by Callum McCahon, Head of Strategy for Born Social, who joined us to share the findings.

Callum began by talking through the context behind the importance of The Social first Brand and then discussed the four pillars of how to build a social first strategy, including ideas and inspiration for each pillar.

The main question that the entire discussion centered around, and the raison-d'etre of the Social first brand is: how will tomorrow's brands be built?

While it is almost impossible for anyone to answer a question that huge, Born Social has created a set of principles to help navigate it. When we look at how the marketing industry in general answers this question, it falls into two broad camps:

  1. The old school, you might call them the digital deniers. They're usually sceptical of new technologies and channels, arguing that nothing has really changed in the way brands are built and nothing will change
  2. The new school, who are fully in on new technologies and channels, but often to the extent where they argue that marketing fundamentals are obsolete, and we can't learn anything from the past. Everything has changed and everything will continue to change

However, Callum disagrees with both of those camps as The social first brand is about finding the right balance and not having to pick one or the other.


This graph shows how media consumption has changed over the last decade alone. There has been a seismic shift in the landscape with the rise of mobile and all the implications that stem from that. But, the fundamental building blocks of how brands are built, remain as true as ever.

Brands who are succeeding in the new social world follow the same old foundations, but give them new interpretations for new environments.

So how will tomorrow's brands be built?

The next great brands will be built on social media. It is the dominant form of attention, and it's only going to continue growing. However, new great brands will still be built in a similar way to brands of the past. By combining the two, we can really start to unlock the potential of new environments. To bring this to life, Callum took us through four timeless truths, which are unlikely to change - looking at how each truth can be applied to today's environment.

1. Balance between long term and short term objectives

Brand building plants the seeds and sales activation harvests the crops. All brands need both in order to grow. The rule of thumb is to spend 60% of your budget on brand building and 40% on sales activation. This obviously varies brand by brand, industry by industry and is dependent on your stage of growth, but that's the rule of thumb that is commonly accepted in the industry. If only it was that simple in reality.

Over the last five years we've seen a huge shift towards short termism in our industry. This is down to lots of factors: the immediacy of digital, the rise of E-commerce, performance marketing and 10 years of CMOs to name a few. This means that brand building and sales activation are often fighting against each other for time, budget and attention. The route forwards involves adopting a full funnel mindset, something that social is enabling us to do in a way that hasn't been possible before.

In the future we'll need to see a merging of the two disciplines, with performance marketing and brand marketing becoming the same thing. New tools and formats offered by social media are already starting to give us really innovative ways to bring them together.

Measurement plays a crucial role in the full funnel approach. We need to make brand and performance accountable to the same framework, through a balanced scorecard approach. One of the most important roles for brand marketers is setting the right objectives and incentives that get everyone pointing in the same direction, pulling in metrics across brand and performance.

Brands who have done this in a really smart way create product driven narratives that build the brand and communicate the product benefits in one swoop, reducing friction between creative and commerce and building one cohesive approach across the funnel.

2. Scale - getting beyond your core audience to your entire target audience

Scale is fundamental to growth. Brands need to talk to their entire target audience, or as much of it as possible, in order to grow. You can't just rely on reaching heavy buyers, you need to reach light buyers as well. This is where a lot of brands went wrong with social media in the early days, seeing it as a place to grow loyalty with their existing customers and focusing solely on building followers within core communities.

The true potential of social media is as a place to go broad and reach mass audiences. We're starting to see real results from brands who have gone broad and used paid social to reach their entire target audience and really maximise the opportunity. But, scale is more of a challenge than ever before as attention is fragmented across different devices, channels and formats - you can't just build for one platform or one format.

Born Social recommends tomorrow's brands adopt a channel cluster approach, getting scale in layers across complementary clusters of channels and reaching audiences where they are. It requires more flexibility within your channel strategy and is dependent on objectives in the changing environment - moving towards more of an ecosystem approach.

The more platforms you can reach people across, the better results you achieve. Obviously, you need to balance that with resources and focus, but this is one of a few cases in marketing where if you are able to add more, you usually should. The impact on ROI from additional channels and touchpoints unlocks a new way of thinking about campaigns and assets - going beyond one hero asset and towards a flexible approach to creative. Big ideas should stretch across multiple executions and context needs to be as important as the craft itself.

An example of this is the New York Public Library who recreated novels as Instagram stories:


You can't run with a one size fits all approach to creativity - it's about balancing craft and context. Burberry is a fantastic example of this approach in motion. Their Christmas campaign from last year highlights how to take one idea and explode it out across different clusters of executions.

Burberry 1894-Festive-CR

his was one hero piece that Burberry built a whole ecosystem around. If you're going from YouTube, to Instagram, to Tik Tok, you see different parts of the picture add up to something much more powerful than running the same piece of creative.

GymShark is also a really good example here. This is their black friday campaign last year, where one big overall idea was built out into loads of platform native executions.


3. Being consistently distinctive across everything that you do

When you think of a strong brand, their distinctive assets are almost certainly the first things that come to mind: logos, taglines, colours, characters etc. and that doesn't happen by accident.

Great brands know that they need to build and reinforce their distinctive assets consistently, over the long term, regardless of the media. But, being distinctive and being consistent isn't always easy. Not only do we need to be creating more assets across more channels, we need to consider audience voices and influencers, which are seen as being even more important than a brand voice, meaning we have less control than ever before on how our brand is perceived. The Social first brand leans into this lack of control turning it into an opportunity rather than a threat.

There is also a need to move beyond thinking about distinctive brand assets and start to think more about distinctive product assets - product assets being the kind of products that the end user actually interacts with. UGC is a really important part of the digital brand and being aware of how your brand is perceived in UGC is an essential tactic. By focusing on building assets that can be optimized for UGC, you can incentivize your community to be consistent in what they post.

Tomorrow's brands understand that co-creation is a massive pillar of success. It's about bringing your audience in and allowing them to input by starting to remove friction between a centralised brand and an audience.

An example here is how Glossier builds its community - they've gone all in on co-creation and listen really carefully to their audience. In doing so they've generated an unwavering commitment to their distinctive brand assets with the majority of their UGC matching that aesthetic, there's almost no difference between images they are tagged in and images on their feed.

4. Build relevance - shared meaning of your brand within culture

Strong brands don't exist on a one to one basis. For that reason brands need to put a great deal of consideration into which subcultures they actually commit to and naturally fit with. The more overlap there is between brand values and subculture value, the more suited it will feel over the long term. KFC and gaming is a really good example here. They identified the overlap between their products, their brand and the subculture of gaming on social media and have built a brilliant sub brand in the gaming space.

To get this right brands need to embody the cultural codes of specific subcultures, understand shared context and help to advance it in some way. Squarespace is also an example of getting subcultures right. They identified the side hustle subculture as a territory that fits their brand and product and have done a really good job at embodying the tone of the community by adding value.

When you pull these four pillars together, full funnel building with community channel clusters, and scaling subcultures, you start to build a framework for how tomorrow's great brands will be built and how social first brands are built. By taking timeless truths and giving them new interpretations. And they earn the right to be called social first brands because they realise the potential social has as a central environment.

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