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Mossberg: Are brands really your friends?

Are all of us just brands?

Brand activations at SXSW

Welcome to Mossberg, a weekly commentary and reviews column on The Verge and Re/code by veteran tech journalist Walt Mossberg, now an Executive Editor at The Verge and Editor at Large of Re/code.

For as long as I can remember, our family has used Tide laundry detergent. It gets the job done, and I buy it robotically every time we run out of detergent, never even casting a glance at All, Gain, or Wisk. My wife and I have spent a fortune on Tide, over the years, and we are satisfied with it.

But I would never like or follow Tide on Facebook or Twitter. It’s soap.

Tide is not a cousin, a colleague, a classmate, an old friend, or a business acquaintance. Few people would consider it a source of intriguing ideas or art, unlike publications, journalists, entertainers, political leaders, academics, or advocacy groups. It’s just soap.

Yet, as I write this, 4,043,112 people "like" the Tide brand page on Facebook. And that Tide page itself likes the Facebook brand pages of Downy, Bounce, and Olay — all of which happen to be products which, like Tide, are made by Procter & Gamble.

On Twitter, Tide’s account has 171,295 followers and has tweeted 12,671 times, often with customer service tweets and stain-removal tips. The good folks at Tide also maintain a very small Twitter account called Tide Laundry Line, which is described as run by "a team of experts trained by Tide in the art of laundry."

And Tide’s following is small potatoes for inanimate-product social networking accounts. Many are much more popular. One example: Red Bull has over 45 million Facebook fans and over 2 million Twitter followers. Even an unglamorous item like Charmin toilet paper has over a million Facebook fans and 70,000 Twitter followers.

I am amazed more by the faithful followers of commodities like Tide and Charmin than, say, by the huge digital posses of pop stars or presidential candidates, who at least have ideas or excitement to offer. (Donald Trump, with about 8 million followers on Twitter, beats Hillary Clinton with just 6.2 million. Katy Perry and Justin Bieber crush them with over 80 million each.)

But the broader point is that brands are everywhere on peoples' news feeds. While most social media accounts, especially on Facebook, are held by normal people who aren’t trying to promote themselves or their ideas, many account holders are brands, or are trying to become brands, just like Tide or Trump.

And that includes people, not just companies.

Hell, I’m a brand, albeit a very small one and in a limited domain. So are most national journalists I know, especially those who cover tech, media, politics, and sports. With the help of the social engagement team at The Verge, I use my Twitter account and a brand page on Facebook to promote my own work, and those of colleagues at this website and others owned by our publisher.

Sure, I also tweet or retweet — or like or post on Facebook — items that have nothing to do with my brand, or technology, or what comes from competitors. And I maintain a personal Facebook page where I mainly post things for friends like snowstorm photos or Red Sox news. But I use social media to promote my brand.

Others in other fields do, too. It isn’t uncommon to see the stars of TV shows tweeting during the airing of new episodes, or commenting on them later. Athletes do it. Realtors do it.

The publisher of this website, Vox Media, has an arm that helps companies create engaging content that promotes their brands.

There’s a reason for this: in the cacophony of voices that the web has unleashed, if you want a place in the public square, you have to try and make yourself something of a brand. Otherwise, you may be ignored. As I told a group of journalism students recently, you don’t do this by compromising your ethics, foregoing good work, or competing with your employer. You do it by creating something you consider valuable and then speaking up about it on social media.

And there’s nothing wrong with that, per se. Companies have been pushing their brands, as opposed to particular products, since long before the web existed. Billboards and ads on the fences at baseball parks pushed brands ages ago. Early TV shows often included the names of their sole sponsors in their titles. National newspapers carried frequent full-page ads for brands.

And individuals, such as actors or athletes or old-time newspaper columnists have long promoted their personal brands.

But, social media makes this different. It’s kind of weird to me, especially on Facebook, to essentially (even if not technically) be asked to be "friends" with something like Kleenex (418,000 likes). And you have to be careful, because if you do "like" a product’s brand page or a brand’s post on Facebook, you may find your name attached to it.

For instance, while researching this column, I was amazed to discover the name of a friend — a very smart editor — being called out (at least to me) among those who liked the Downy fabric softener Facebook page. It’s not that I couldn’t imagine him liking Downy, just that I couldn’t imagine him publicly endorsing it. So I called him. He was baffled. He said he doesn’t even use Downy, and had no memory of liking its page. He guessed maybe he’d liked a funny post he hadn’t realized had come from the company.

One conscious reason people might be inclined to like or follow a corporate brand account is if the company is creative about its content. For instance, the Red Bull Facebook page is chock-full of action sports videos. On Twitter, many companies use their accounts to provide customer service, and have their social media teams respond to unhappy customers. (I know from multiple personal experiences that United Airlines’ Twitter team is very nice, even if apparently powerless.)

I asked Twitter to drill down a bit for me on why people follow brands. According to the company, over half say they just like the brand, or want to get special offers. Other reasons: staying up-to-date with products, and watching or reading interesting content. Twitter stresses that the most engaging brand sites, not the loudest ones, work best.

According to Twitter, the top five consumer brands by followers on the service are Chanel, Starbucks, PlayStation, Victoria’s Secret, and Xbox. None of these are commodities and all have fiercely loyal customers.

Facebook emphasizes that some companies prefer product pages to corporate brand pages, and that bottom-line results, not likes, are its key metric. But it says the top five brand pages as measured by number of likes are Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, Disney, Red Bull, and Samsung Mobile.

I’ll keep buying Tide and Kleenex. But I don’t want them in my Facebook feed.