Rules of Engagement

Our third annual Michigan Social Media Brand Index, in partnership with Livonia-based Market Strategies International, ranks 50 state-based companies and their integration of Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, blogs, and forums in reaching and interacting with consumers.
Illustrations by Austin Phillips

It all began earlier this year with an audacious idea from Warren Buffett — investor, philanthropist, and chairman and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway. While he ranks fourth overall on Forbes’  list of billionaires, with an estimated worth in the neighborhood of $60 billion, he’s not known for publicity stunts.

Still, Buffett wondered: Why not offer a $1 billion payday to anyone who can correctly pick the winners of all 63 games in the NCAA’s men’s college basketball tournament, better known as “March Madness”?

Fellow billionaire Dan Gilbert, founder and chairman of Quicken Loans Inc. — who is worth an estimated $3.7 billion, placing him at No. 408 on the Forbes list — joined in the fun, and the result was the first-ever Quicken Loans Billion Dollar Bracket.

The odds of anyone correctly filling out every game bracket was infinitesimally minute — 9.2 quintillion (17 zeroes) to one. And, sure enough, the competition ended soon after it began: Only 25 games in, and on just the second day of the tournament, every one of the 11 million participants was eliminated. Matt Cardwell, Quicken Loans’ director of social media, sounds downright giddy as he explains the impact it all had on the visibility of his company’s brand.

“Afterward, we went back and looked at how many brand impressions for Quicken Loans and Rock Ventures (a related company) were served up over all of these different channels,” Cardwell says, “and we were in the billions. That was something we never had before.”

All of the attention and excitement undoubtedly has something to do with Quicken’s 15th-place ranking on this year’s Michigan Social Media Brand Index. Tabulated by Livonia-based Market Strategies International, the purpose of the index is to provide an objective and comprehensive view of how various top brands performed in social media — Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube — for a 12-month period.


The high ranking on the recent index confirms Cardwell’s strong belief that if a convergence of all the required elements is in place, social media is a formidable marketing tool.

“It really comes down to the power of the idea,” he says. “Something like the Billion Dollar Bracket had never been done before, it got people’s attention, they were excited about it, the media was excited about it, and it generally just generated a lot of conversation and a lot of reach that we had never experienced before. Every channel built on another channel, so we were very happy with that.”

Chris Brandon, director of communications at Domino’s Pizza Inc. in Ann Arbor, No. 2 on the index, can certainly relate to the power of a great idea — especially one that turns conventional wisdom completely upside down.

“I think people realize that Domino’s has legitimately used social media for the last few years to truly listen and gain feedback from customers, fans, and followers,” he says, “and I think people really feel listened-to with us.”

Exhibit A for Brandon is what is known in the industry as the “Pizza Turnaround.” Domino’s was founded in 1960 by Tom Monaghan and his brother, James, who borrowed $900 to pay for their first store in Ypsilanti and delivered their first pizzas in a Volkswagen Bug. Today there are more than 11,000 stores worldwide, including 6,000 overseas. Since 2008, Domino’s has surpassed the growth rate of its main competitors, Pizza Hut and Papa John’s.

Back in 2010, however, the company was foundering and the future was bleak, as it buckled under not only challenges from its competitors, but scathing criticism from its own customers — who deemed the pizzas subpar, if not downright lousy. That’s when the company adopted a startling new strategy: They decided to admit publicly their product had its drawbacks.

“Social media was a big arena for us to get a lot of that feedback,” Brandon recalls. “It wasn’t just classic research methods, like focus groups and surveys and those things. It was actually getting out there and hearing from people.”

The results of that feedback on Domino’s array of social platforms were part of a corporate decision to implement an unprecedented strategy to address the dilemma.


“We completely defied advertising 101 by basically going out there and acknowledging that our core product, our hand-tossed pizza, wasn’t good enough,” Brandon says. “We put ourselves in a very vulnerable position in many ways by saying, ‘Hey, we heard you say the crust tastes like cardboard and the sauce tastes like ketchup. We hear you.’ There’s a lot of anxiety going out there with that kind of bold stance.”

In the end, the results more than justified the strategy as the food selections, ingredients, and recipes were upgraded. America’s customer satisfaction index score for Domino’s jumped from 69 percent to 81 percent, company revenue increased substantially, and, since the turnaround, the value of its stock has risen exponentially — an astonishing 400 percent.

To Brandon, the success of the “Pizza Turnaround” can be attributed to one main theme: complete honesty and transparency with Domino’s customers.

“This was a time of bailouts, and people not trusting what politicians and business leaders were telling them,” he says. “There was a lot of skepticism. So to have Domino’s come out and speak in this very real, very honest, accountable, transparent way meant a lot to people. And that initial reaction we saw from people, through social media, really began to materialize as true two-way communication. It wasn’t just us sending out advertising, crossing our fingers, and hoping for the best. We were actually able to dial into the social media and see and feel that response. It was a special time for us.”

And, Brandon adds, it couldn’t have happened without the power of social media.

“You take a brand that’s really dedicated to standing for honesty, transparency, and accountability, and you take a customer base that’s really looking for that same thing within the social media realm specifically … it’s a perfect marriage that places a huge emphasis on those elements,” he says. “What better place to meet up? It’s a perfect match and the perfect place to meet.”

That’s certainly not the case for DTE Energy, No. 25 on the index and the provider of gas and/or electricity to more than 3 million residential, business, and industrial customers throughout the state.

“Our product is unseen,” says Alejandro Bodipo-Memba, DTE’s manager of media relations. “You can’t see it, touch it, or taste it, but when it’s not there, everybody knows.”

And, invariably, everyone is quick to vent when the lights go out, burners on the stove fail to ignite, or the furnace shuts down in the dead of winter — inevitable challenges that Bodipo-Memba and his team view as important opportunities to communicate via social media.


“We know that once our products aren’t available, people are going to sound off,” he says. “So we’ve created communities around our products that allow for people to express themselves.” For example, last December, rather than sit back and wait for a massive ice storm that was expected to pummel the state, DTE reached out to their social audience and started to warn people of the potential consequences of the severe storm.

“We monitor the weather through a meteorological team here,” he says, “and when we knew this was going to be a very serious storm, we started utilizing all of our digital channels, particularly our social channels, to start getting folks ready and letting people know what they needed to do in case of power outages during the winter — get batteries, get supplies in advance — and also letting them know about all our channels.”

Once the storm hit, its effect was unprecedented and devastating. “It impacted about 400,000 customers during the Christmas holiday season,” Bodipo-Memba says. “They lost power throughout the state. There was ice on power lines, thousands of lines that were snapping, and people were really fearful about what was going to be happening.”

He adds that for an array of customers across the state, DTE’s social media network proved to be a source of comfort, resources, and vital information.

“We started having very robust dialogue with some of our customers about what was happening, (and) where they were,” he says. “Social media turned out to be one of the primary vehicles people used during that week to get information. If they were in stranded situations, we did our best to convey through social media that we’d passed on their information and were trying to elevate their situation so we could get somebody out there to get them some help.”

The experience was a revelation for Bodipo-Memba and DTE; the dialogue via social media not only allowed the utility’s customers to get invaluable information but, most importantly, he says, “They told us how we were doing.


“We’ve recognized through experiments and listening for the last couple of years in these spaces that social media is, in fact, where our customers live. That’s where they get a lot of their information about us, as well as others,
and where they expect to get information about their particular circumstances. We understand that. One of the core principles of our company is to be more customer-focused, so we’ve grown our social network exponentially over the last year or two to be able to address the (increasing) number of inquiries we get through social spaces.”

A hyper-focus on customer relations is also a priority for Carhartt Inc., the Dearborn-based company founded in 1889 that specializes in work clothes, boots, gloves, and other rugged outerwear. The company ranked No. 6 on this year’s index.

“We have several rules of engagement as far as social media is concerned,” says Tony Ambroza, Carhartt’s senior vice president of marketing. “It’s got to be authentic, true to the consumer, and true to the brand — and by all means, if it’s not additive or beneficial in some way, whether it’s entertaining or informative, then why are we doing it? And we’ve learned when we’ve made those mistakes it just doesn’t resonate, and we don’t get the type of engagement that we seek.”

Facebook is a valuable tool for Carhartt, which counts more than 2.6 million fans on its page. Interacting with them directly is more challenging nowadays, however, because of limitations Facebook has recently implemented.

“They’ve created a filter so it’s harder to reach your audience organically,” Ambroza says, “and you also have to pay for that access. So we do that in a very limited and targeted manner. The fan count isn’t what we track anymore. We’re not going out there and actively trying to recruit more people to our page.”

One of Carhartt’s most effective campaigns, which speaks to increased customer engagement, involves its new line of college-licensed products.

“Carhartt has always been a down-to-earth, personable brand,” Ambroza says. “Word of mouth has always been a really important aspect of our brand-building and business models. We started doing targeted posts based on people’s geographic locations and affinity or connection to a university, and what we saw was an instantaneous and corollary response to our sales in the marketplace.”

In fall 2013, the licensed apparel of just 14 schools was available. Based on the response to the campaign on Carhartt’s social media platforms, that number has jumped to 39 schools this fall and is already projected to reach 45 schools by this time next year. Even more impressive is the sales percentage increase, which hit triple digits once Carhartt’s college advertising appeared in various social media channels.

“That was a really nice read for us,” says Ambroza, “because prior to last year we didn’t even have college-licensed products. So it confirmed that if you have something a consumer values, they’re going to tune in and listen.”

Diana Sikes, a senior vice president of marketing at Art Van Furniture Inc. in Warren, No. 22 on the index, can barely contain herself after supervising a company event she describes as a “Sofa Flash Mob.” She says the activity proved that any group of customers will not only listen — but actually show up, in droves — if they’re enthusiastic about something they value and love.


“(The Sofa Flash Mob) was so much fun,” she laughs. “We brought 55 sofas to downtown (Detroit), to Campus Martius — out on the sidewalk and in front of the Qube (formerly the Chase building). We had Nigel Barker, the fashion photographer, come down and take selfies with people on the sofas. Then they posted those to their own social pages, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, wherever they wanted. We’re going to see who has the most likes, re-tweets, and follows on their posts. The top 55 most popular tweets were going to win a sofa.

The event was a gigantic success.

“It was fantastic,” Sikes says. “We had thousands of people. We brought a thousand of our new fall catalogs downtown and ran out of them in the first half-hour.”

Social media also enables Art Van’s customers to get a preview of what each selling season’s offerings are going to be.

“Our buyers actually send us photos,” Sikes says, “and we put them up on Facebook so consumers can weigh in on something before it has even been purchased by Art Van and planned for the showroom floor. We can get that early feedback from our followers, which is great.”

And, of course, Sikes and her team can also get a great idea of what’s a top seller — or not.

“In prior years, it was way more difficult to learn about trends,” she says. “You had to wait for people to go to the cash register and see the sales figures to know what the hot trends were. Now we put them up on Facebook and people tell us instantly how they like things and what they’re sharing. We really get the pulse of the customer before they ever cross the threshold and make a retail purchase.

“We wanted people to follow us because they (sincerely) were engaged by our messaging, by our content,” she says. “We’ve had a nice, steady growth of authentic followers who follow us because they enjoy our content.”

The approach seems to be working. In just the last year, she says Art Van’s Facebook following has tripled, to 150,000 followers. Eighty percent of those followers are female, which makes sense because women tend to be the style leaders in the household.

As for the other 20 percent? “Men,” Sikes says. “But I think that’s probably because they’re looking for dates.” db

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