The marketing savvy in Mark Zuckerberg’s tour of Average America

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg gestures while delivering the keynote address at the f8 Facebook Developer Conference Wednesday, April 30, 2014, in San Francisco. (AP Photo/Ben…
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg gestures while delivering the keynote address at the f8 Facebook Developer Conference Wednesday, April 30, 2014, in San Francisco. (AP Photo/Ben…
Image: AP Photo/Ben Margot
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Every year in January, Mark Zuckerberg announces to his Facebook followers (and by extension, the global media) a new personal challenge. Before 2017, he had kept these commitments in the realm of self-improvement: learning Mandarin, building a simple AI assistant, running 365 miles, and, most famously, eating meat only from animals that he killed himself.

But this year’s announcement, made to 91 million Facebook followers, seemed different. Announced after a year in which Facebook faced backlash for its influence on relationships, the polarization of information, the spread of fake news, and the 2016 election, it’s the first of Zuckerberg’s goals to involve other people. By the end of the year, the Facebook CEO plans to have visited all 50 US states, a challenge he hopes will help him “get out and talk to more people about how they’re living, working and thinking about the future.”

Six months in, Zuckerberg has posted photos from community-focused visits in 13 states on his Facebook profile. He’s stopped at seven schools (plus one military academy), two churches, and a NASCAR race track, and he has managed to squeeze a well-lit photo and a heartfelt lesson from each one. “Treating an epidemic like this is complicated and the people I met say it’s years from even peaking,” he mused from an opioid rehabilitation clinic in Dayton, Ohio. “But they also came back to the importance of connection and relationships.”

Zuckerberg’s announcement that he would tour America coincided with a long manifesto about Facebook’s place in the world, which covered everything from how Facebook can help reinvigorate community connection to how the social network can improve civic engagement.

Everything about the tour—the stated objective, the handshaking with regular Joes, the well-orchestrated photo ops, and the positive messages about our collective—looks like a political campaign. But that isn’t the only explanation.

Maybe Zuckerberg will run for public office, and maybe he won’t (Zuckerberg has said he won’t). In either case, Facebook has business reasons that could justify its cofounder’s well-documented road tripping.

Facebook’s brand challenge

Facebook’s official mission statement is “to give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected.” For a long time, nobody questioned whether that was a good thing. But as Zuckerberg put it in his manifesto, today, “There are questions about whether we can make a global community that works for everyone, and whether the path ahead is to connect more or reverse course.”

Facebook has taken a lot of heat in the last year. Research has suggested that social media-driven fear of missing out (FOMO) is both real and destructive. During the election, the site came under fire for its role in spreading fake news. And more recently, a string of violent acts broadcast over Facebook Live have led to scrutiny of its content moderation and safety policies.

Perhaps most antithetical to its mission, Facebook has been blamed for creating a so-called “filter bubble” that prevents people from being exposed to viewpoints other than their own.

Can a tour of middle America help?

Experts disagree about whether Zuckerberg’s tour can help counteract the brand challenges it faces.

Some see it as a way that Facebook can demonstrate its commitment to its mission of building an open and connected world. “People want to align themselves with brands and organizations that they believe share their identities and sets of values,” says Americus Reed, a professor of marketing who studies what he calls identity loyalty at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. “The folks in the c-suite, they have a role to play in communicating these values and what the companies stand for.” In Zuckerberg’s case, he says, the trip around the world could be interpreted as, “Let me go out there and break down some of those barriers, and let this be an example of how Facebook can connect various groups that want to speak to each other.”

Facebook, in other words, needs a face.

Most brands do, according to many marketers. “A brand is a promise and a relationship to the customer,” says Rohit Deshpande, a professor of marketing at Harvard Business School. “It’s hard for an inanimate legal entity to have a relationship with somebody. It has to have a face.”

Nike hires athletes to promote its sneakers and CoverGirl hires celebrities to promote its makeup. Steve Jobs was that face for Apple. Mark Zuckerberg is that face for Facebook. “My work is about connecting the world and giving everyone a voice,” Zuckerberg wrote in the announcement of his commitment to visit all 50 states. It’s a paraphrase of Facebook’s mission statement.

In some post’s from Zuckerberg’s tour of America, he quotes directly from his manifesto about how Facebook can facilitate better community.

Jim Stengel, the author of Grow: How Ideals Power Growth and Profit at the World’s Greatest Companies, says this type of mission “is what people care about: They want to work for a company that is seeking to make a positive difference. They want to buy from those kinds of companies.” He says the manifesto and road trip were both effective at communicating Facebook’s purpose. “Zuckerberg is really putting down on paper the kind of company that he wants to be going forward,” he says, “and I think the road trip is a way to socialize that.”

Not everyone sees it this way.

Douglas Holt, the author of Cultural Strategy: Using Innovative Ideologies to Build Breakthrough Brands, argues that what is important from a branding perspective for Facebook is not what the company, or Mark Zuckerberg, says about Facebook’s values. “People collectively impute what Facebook stands for by what Facebook does,” he says. “In this case, they make inferences based upon the clear value Facebook brings to their lives juxtaposed with the big problems that it seems to cause (privacy, filter, fake news, fatigue etc) and also the aggressive commercialism of the feed.”

Though Zuckerberg’s tour may create general goodwill for Facebook, Holt doesn’t think it’s a great idea from a branding perspective. ”The company needs to engage precisely the key brand issues that they face out in the world—amongst users, in the media—then design a strategy to counter these problems and execute,” he writes in an email. “Having Zuck do a tour to ‘humanize Facebook’ and talk about ‘Facebook’s company values’ is a strategic copout because it completely ignores the huge brand issues that the company now faces.” This is why he believes that Zuckerberg’s recent efforts are really about personal branding and politics.

For Facebook, Holt sees bigger potential in Zuckerberg’s manifesto, because it addressed how Facebook specifically can serve as a force for good in people’s lives, particularly through its group feature. “You need to reassert that Facebook platform really does have a massive world-changing positive impact on society. How? The one function of the platform that really delivers on this, which has not yet been recognized widely, is GROUPS,” Holt says. But he doesn’t believe that Facebook has effectively double-downed on groups across its product, communications, and efforts across the board. ”Instead of writing a dusty treatise,” he says. “they need to drive the transformational role of groups in society into the media, into the cultural conversation.”

In any case, says Reed, “Is this initiative that Mark Zuckerberg is doing going to cause people to not use Facebook? No. Is it going to make them use it more? Maybe. But it’s not going to hurt Facebook.”