The most successful brands share several attributes in common.
One of the most important: Ownership of a single word that defines the brand. Last week, Facebook made the word “like” its own, in one of the biggest branding revolutions in decades.

“Like” is seemingly everywhere this week and associated with Facebook. The social network didn’t just extend the mechanism beyond its territorial borders, but claimed ownership over the word, too.

Backed by the social network’s reach and popularity – approaching 500 million subscribers – and Open Graph protocol, the “Like” thumbs-up icon already appears on hundreds of thousands of Web pages outside Facebook. Perhaps then, Facebook’s branding revolution is double – not just ‘like’ but the thumbs-up symbol too.

Big brands do big business by claiming ownership over a single word. For Volvo it’s “safety.” For, Nike it’s “performance.” For Apple, it’s increasingly “magic.” Barack Obama claimed “change” during his presidential campaign.

In 2002, Rajendra Srivastava, Emory University Goizueta Business School professor, explained the importance of word ownership. “A brand really lies between the two ears of the consumer. The company owns the physical brand, of course, but the value of the brand really is what it means to the consumer.” What could be more meaningful than like? The word is loaded with positive and personal connotations. “I like you” or “I like this.” Good branding also is about generating good feelings.

From a broader branding perspective, word ownership is most powerful when it is a verb, meaning there is action behind it. For some brands, like Google or Xerox, the word is the company name replacing a verb. People “Google” instead of “search” or they “Xerox” instead of “copy.” Facebook is never going to be a successful verb, but like is already one.

Facebook’s Like branding is out of the ordinary from a larger marketing perspective. Generally, companies take ownership over a word because they want people to buy something. Facebook wants people to vote for something by Liking it. Around those Likes – and the associated subscriber identities – Facebook is looking to profit from advertising and marketing intelligence services. As good as cookies and other tracking mechanisms are, an identity is much better. Facebook can build demographic profiles around those Likes, which are marketing gold.

Perhaps the closest out of the ordinary word branding campaign to Facebook is Barack Obama’s run for the presidency. How strange, he sought people’s votes, too – wanted more Americans to like him. The Obama political campaign ran one of the most effective marketing campaigns in US history. Advertising Age named Barack Obama marketer of the year in 2008. In November 5, 2008, AdAge story “What Marketers Can Learn From Obama’s Campaign,” Al Ries explains how Obama came to own “change”.

Facebook and Barack Obama share somewhat intertwined fates. A Facebook founder created the social networking infrastructure that helped a presidential campaign own the word “change,” and to pull off one of the most successful branding campaigns in American political history. Now Facebook is claiming ownership over “like,” using social networking tools to drive the brand ownership/association.

Regardless, Facebook has taken ownership over the word like. Brand marketers around the world wish they could have done something similar. They’ll cash in by association. Facebook Like is going to big marketing.

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