Arnie WeissmannSandy Douglas, chief customer officer of Coca-Cola, says the bad news is that brand loyalty is more fragile than ever.

"We all want brand loyalty," he told attendees at the World Travel & Tourism Council Global Summit last week in Abu Dhabi (see related report, "A mix of optimism and pessimism at WTTC Summit"). "But better than brand loyalty is brand love." 

And not just any love: "The kind of love close friends have."

What brand manager wouldn't seek love? But it turns out that brand love, like human love, is prone to miscalculations, miscommunications and forces well beyond an individual's control. The simple desire to be loved is no guarantee that love is forthcoming.

Social media played a large role in forming Douglas' views on customer engagement.

He told delegates how two guys who apparently had way too much time on their hands actually beat Coke in creating a brand Facebook page. In prior days, corporate lawyers would have fired off a cease-and-desist letter. But Douglas realized that, first of all, the creators of the page actually liked Coke, and it was filled with positive testimonials. And second, he knew that today's consumer cannot be controlled as she or he had been in the past. Management of the Facebook page, which now has more than 62 million "likes," was eventually taken over by Coke, but only at the insistence of Facebook. 

Coke FacebookManaging, however, does not mean controlling. As I write this, the first comment on the page says "U suck."

And the first comment under a humorous meme likewise does not reflect brand love. Rather, it is a complaint from someone whose brother had just been fired from his job driving a Coke delivery truck.

"Individuals are more powerful than ever," Douglas said, and he acknowledged that when it comes to social media, Coke has very little control. "Consumers own our brands."

Indeed, go to YouTube and search the word Coke. Several of the results on the first page will demonstrate what occurs when you drop a Mentos mint into a bottle of Diet Coke. Only four of the 15 top results were actually posted by Coke.

You might assume that your company can't attract the same sort of interest and emotional resonance that an iconic, 126-year-old soft drink will. But then there's the curious example of Tasha Chen, travel agent.

I met Tasha on an escalator at our CruiseWorld conference in Fort Lauderdale last November. She had doubts about whether she could make it as a travel agent, but she had been encouraged by some of our speakers and was going to give it another chance.

I hadn't heard from her again until my cellphone rang while I was in Abu Dhabi last week. It was Tasha, and she wanted to tell me some exciting news. She had decided to focus on mother-daughter vacations, and put a simple message on her Facebook page MotherandDaughterTrips: "Click 'like' if you think your daughter is beautiful." 

The message was picked up by other Facebook users, and within a week, she got more than 17,000 likes with a reach of more than 1.86 million views. True, less than Coke, but give her time. She posted it only a week ago.

Chen is trying to move quickly to capitalize on her viral hit, and she's contacting cruise lines to see if they will participate in a Facebook contest to give away a mother-daughter cruise.

Why was Chen so successful? The question she posted was at once heartfelt and brilliant. Who doesn't think their daughter is beautiful? Chen might have tapped into an emotion even more powerful than the love of a friend: the love of a child.

Email Arnie Weissmann at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter.

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