Andrew Walmsley on digital: Clumsy attempt at being compelling

Corporate blogs have come in for a lot of stick in recent weeks - the latest being the efforts of Wal-Mart to persuade us that they are a nice bunch of people by sponsoring two bloggers to drive a camper van around the US, staying nights in the company's car parks.

What caused this one to come unstuck was its disingenuous nature. The blog neither revealed the backing of the firm (via a body called Working Families for Wal-Mart), nor the professional status of the participants, and in doing so broke one of the basic rules of blogging: don't hide the truth.

This rule has emerged not because of the high ethical standards of bloggers, but because they have learned that given the vast resources of the collective blogosphere, readers are going to find you out. So it is ultimately pragmatism that keeps bloggers on the straight and narrow, and while you will find inaccurate statements in blogs, you will almost always find them challenged and hotly debated.

While the experiences of the Wal-Mart bloggers were real, its credibility was fatally compromised. Eventually, the PR agency behind it, Edelman, apologised publicly amid derision online.

Most corporate blogs do not attempt to fake it on such a scale - but they are strangely unappetising nevertheless. They are one of those strange beasts that emerge from the internet from time to time - generally giving neither the personal views of a commentator nor the official corporate statement.

They exist in an odd limbo between these states, and it is this perhaps that makes them thoroughly unsatisfying.

In the UK, the marketing team behind one popular beer has maintained a blog for just over a year, talking about the brand and the events it sponsors. Full marks for effort, but as it attracts hardly any comment from real consumers, you find yourself asking why they bother. As a drinker of its brand, I am supremely uninterested in the fact that the marketing manager has 'had his head in spreadsheets' for the last few weeks - and as a marketer it looks like a clumsy attempt to put a human face to the brand.

Clumsy not least because amid all the blokey chattiness, the corporate lawyers have left their fingerprints - imploring people who participate to avoid ad hominem comments - yes, I had to look it up too.

Even without this, I would question whether putting a human face on a brand like this is a good idea. A brand is a complex set of expectations and associations, some of which we create through communications, and some that consumers construe for themselves based on their experience of consumption or contact.

When we stick the marketing director's face on it, it jars. He looks like a nice bloke, but he is not the brand. He is the workings behind it. When we watch a film, we know there is a cameraman and that the room is a set, but we suspend our disbelief to participate in the story. If we were constantly reminded of their involvement, it would get in the way.

Just as our enjoyment of a film depends on the invisibility of the prime movers behind it, the integrity of the image we maintain of a brand is not enhanced by the thoughts of the marketing team on the pressures of international commitments on the domestic game.

While telling the truth is crucial to successful blogging, sometimes it is not enough. The blogosphere is a very literal, direct environment that does not lend itself to the nuance of 'pure' branding. When the blog can become part of the customer's experience of the brand - by offering support, community and involvement - it is both powerful and effective. But if you set out to use it to supplement brand communications, it is difficult to add real value for consumers, hard to control and often just the wrong tool for the job.

- Andrew Walmsley is co-founder of i-level

30 SECONDS ON ... WALMARTINGACROSSAMERICA.COM

- At the beginning of this month, Jim Threasher, a photographer for the Washington Post, and Laura St Claire, a freelance writer, embarked on a 10-day journey from Nevada to Georgia. They travelled in Wally 1, a red, green and blue camper van, and spent each night in a different Wal-Mart car park.

- The trip was funded by Working Families for Wal-Mart, a Wal-Mart-backed organisation designed to promote a positive portrayal of the company, and organised by PR firm Edelman.

- On 18 October Richard Edelman, chief executive of Edelman, apologised for failing to be transparent about the identity of the two bloggers.

- Threasher and St Claire travelled 2843 miles on their trip.

- Last week Threasher agreed to repay $2200 in travel costs to Working Families for Wal-Mart after the Washington Post said he had violated its ethical guidelines.

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