Facebook breaks the brand permission rules

Back in February, I wrote a post about how Google stepped beyond its brand permission limits with the launch of the Buzz platform, a classic brand mistake (read more about brand permission here or here). Over the last few months, Facebook has also moved into a dangerous brand space, and may be doing permanent damage to its brand in the process.

You’ve probably seen people (or participated in) spewing venom at Facebook about its privacy practices, so I certainly won’t rehash that stuff here. If this is news to you, and you want to see what people are saying and how Facebook is responding, this interview in The New York Times with Facebook’s VP for Public Policy from earlier this week is a good starting point.

So, beyond the (really good) privacy reasons, why is it so bad that Facebook is making more of your information public by default? What’s the brand mistake? Let’s again look to the brand tags site for some clues. According to the site, the top terms associated with Facebook are:

social networking
waste of time

I’ve put in bold a few terms I think are especially important. If I was to put them in a sentence, it’d read something like “Facebook is a social networking site where people have fun or waste time with their community of friends.”

For most people, this sentence describes the service they signed up for. And hundreds of millions of people must value the Facebook brand for this purpose, because Facebook has been one of the fastest growing platforms the world has ever seen.

When Facebook changed its privacy settings, it went overnight from being a social networking site where people hang out with their friends to a public profile of you on the web. Now, having a public profile is not necessarily a bad thing. Many people have public profiles on the web– personal blogs, websites, even Twitter is a profile that we know is public by default.

The difference is with Twitter, blogs, and websites we made the active choice to create a public profile. None of the terms people associate with Facebook give us any indication that it is known as a public “broadcast” medium. We have given Facebook brand permission to be a private network of friends. No more.

This is the brand mistake. Facebook tried to extend its brand beyond where users had given it permission to go.

Does this mean that, over time, Facebook couldn’t gain brand permission to become more public? Of course they could. But Facebook’s current approach is terrible brand strategy.

Forcing people to change their understanding of what a brand is overnight is akin to forced relocation. You may get the people off their land, but they may end up resenting you for hundreds of years, too.

Changing brand meaning should be done patiently, over time. I’ve written about how to do it the right way in Brand positioning tip #6: build peninsulas, not islands.

There are signs that Facebook is getting the message. This afternoon, Facebook is holding an all-hands meeting about privacy. I do expect that over time, Facebook will become a brand associated with more public and less private communication.

But the way Facebook is doing it today is dangerous, both for its users and brand. Maybe they will announce today at the all-hands meeting a plan to slow down and do a little more work getting brand permission from users. I sure hope so.

About Chris Grams

Chris Grams is Head of Marketing at Tidelift. He is also the author of The Ad-Free Brand: Secrets to Successful Brand Positioning in a Digital World.

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