Marcus Collins

People don’t buy ‘what’ you do, they buy ‘why’ you do it

We met with social media expert Marcus Collins and spoke to him about how to make the best of social media. Marcus, who used to handle Beyoncés digital strategy, is one of Hyper Island’s collaborators for open courses and master classes.

We met with social media expert Marcus Collins and spoke to him about how to make the best of social media. Marcus, who used to handle Beyoncés digital strategy, is one of Hyper Island’s collaborators for open courses and master classes.

Marcus, please give us the 411 on how you got into social media.

My background is actually pretty colorful. I originally started off as an engineering undergrad. I hated it and ended up going into the music industry instead. Music has always been a major passion of mine.

I co-founded a music start-up with a friend. However, we noticed pretty quickly that the music industry was in the midst of going through a phase of digital disruption. In order to be able to deal with that, I decided to go to business school. That’s how I eventually ended up working for Apple.

My liaison with social media started right there, at Apple, where I, by coincidence, met Beyoncé’s father. He liked what I was doing and offered me a job leading digital strategy for Beyoncé and the other artists in his management firm. That was back in 2009. I accepted and that’s when I first fell in love with social media, the media of the people.

Being the music guy that I am, the main thing that I found attractive about social media was the connection and interaction that was going on between artists and their fans. I guess that’s where the loop to my material engineering studies closes, for apparently, I had always been interested in the way ‘things’ are connected.

So is that how you got in touch with Hyper Island?

Eventually yes, but there was more behind it. I was working as an agency leader when one day I had kind of a Jerry Maguire moment. I realized everything I thought I knew about social media was incomplete. I had been thinking a lot about technology. Then, suddenly I realized it’s really about people. In that moment I faced the brutal fact that I knew nothing about people. I suddenly felt like a fraud ‘here I am, the thought leader of social and I know nothing’. So I engrossed myself in the social sciences to better understand people – how we act, interact, and behave in groups. As my understanding deepened I started to get more confident about the dynamics between people; I started thinking about how to articulate that as an agency leader.

That’s when I first started hearing a lot about Hyper Island, and in Hyper Island, I found a kindred spirit – people who saw the world similarly to me. When I heard Mark Comerford describe digital as the network, I realized that by deduction this meant that social must be the network of people. That epiphany became the foundation of my practice.

What I do today, both as a practitioner and an academic centers squarely on understanding people. How do they share, act, consume? What are the patterns and behaviors they form based on the group of people with whom they self-identify?

You talk a lot about how brands can use social media as a platform to become heroes. Are there some basic steps that pave the way to becoming a hero via social media?

For sure! It requires radical simplicity in how we define social media, first. If social by definition is all about people, and media is the vehicle by which communications are delivered, then social media must mean the media of people. That is, people are the vehicle by which messages are delivered. People media enable brands to become heroes simply when brands become heroic. And the only way for brands to do something heroic is by putting people first.

This, of course, is not easy. It conflicts with the business point of view. How do we as a brand know what people care about? What their pain-points are? Brands need to understand these points of friction, learn to be empathetic and put people first. Then they can use technology to accelerate the behaviors people already do and this will eventually result in an opportunity for brands to relieve these friction points, and ultimately become heroes.

I believe that technology only extends the behaviors that people already practice. It’s a very Marshall McLuhan-like perspective. And by that logic, social media is just an extension of our real-life social networks. The only difference lies in the context of the environments.

If you want to be a hero, meaning you want to be loved and looked up to, the golden rule is to love back first. That’s the reciprocity of the network. Biologically, that’s what builds trust between people, but also between people and brands. There is no difference in how people trust people, technology, and brands. Trust is trust.

You also point out that people don’t buy ‘what’ you do, they buy ‘why’ you do it.

This is a provocation of Simon Sinek’s. I’m practically a disciple of his. He illuminates the notion that the part of the brain associated with feelings, like trust, love, and loyalty, are also associated with decision making and behaviors. And the way I see it, if marketing’s job is to influence behavior then this means brands need to resonate within this part of the brain.

When brands have a conviction — what Sinek refers to as a “why” — brand can build relationships with networks of people who share similar values. People resonate with brands via a shared world-view they can identify with and use to communicate their identity. That’s why people get Harley Davidson tattoos or wear Tom’s shoes. Both brands stand for something beyond what they sell. So people use these sort of brands to communicate who they are. It stands for ‘my actions align with this brand’.

Getting involved with convictions can however also be risky. Do you think brands should take a stance on hot issues?

It’s all dispositional. I think there are brands who want to play it safe and choose to not talk about polarizing topics. There are both positive and negative consequences to this as with everything.

If you don’t speak out, you won’t be negatively impacted. However, if there is a population of your customer base who is negatively affected by something directly and you say nothing about it, your silence will be felt. It will erode their trust in you and eventually their relationship with you will be compromised. ‘The silence of our friend is more painful than the shouting of our enemy,’ applies here.

A good example for this is the Black Lives Matter movement. At the height of the tensions, a lot of brands were quiet, choosing to play it safe. But when Black History Month came in February, suddenly the same brands that were silent during the struggles of the black community had no problem celebrating black people. To no surprise, many people found this problematic. Not speaking out when it was needed, but happy to celebrate when it benefits the brand. It’s just not consistent.

This means you need to remember, that if you decide not to speak out about an issue, your silence will be noticed and has meaning to people as well. Being brave can give you a lot, but of course, it’s also a risk. So the question is, how do you as a brand see the world and how do you want to be perceived by the world?

A positive example of this is AirBnB. They believe that people should be able to belong anywhere. And as a result of this, they always speak out when people are being oppressed. For example, during Trump’s Muslim ban they collaborated with their hosts to help people find a place to stay. For AirBnB this walking the talk boosts their credibility and social following, as it nurtures the relationship with their customer base on a deeper level. It creates loyalty. Again, biologically, trust is trust – if it’s a brand or a person, it doesn’t matter.

You’ve touched a bit on it earlier, but how has your opinion of social media evolved since your Beyoncé-days?

When I first started working for Beyoncé, my main goal was to create an ecosystem for all the things she already had: music, video products, merchandise, movies, partnerships with all kinds of different brands etc. Everything was fragmented, so the idea was to use digital to tie all those things together to create an overall experience for people when they come into the Beyonce ecosystem. We wanted them to experience the totality of Beyoncé.

To achieve this, I was very focused on technology. This was 7 years ago. Today I think less about technology and much more about people. I’d say that since I left, my focus has shifted much more towards people from technology. How can we use technology to accelerate human behavior in such a way that creates a platform for a brand to be a hero? I’d even say that while during my time with Beyoncé my focus was Beyoncé first, then tech, and then people – today it’s exactly the opposite.

That sounds like quite an interesting learning journey. Based on your learnings, what would you say is the worst and the best thing about social media?

The answer to both is people!

We at times confuse simple with easy. Losing weight is theoretically simple, but isn’t easy. The same thing goes with social media. People media. People are complicated! In theory, to be successful with social media, you just need to appeal to them. In practice, this isn’t easy.

The best thing about social media, therefore, is the fact that people can do amazing things when they come together. There are things people can only do when they are together and social media is a great vehicle for that.

However, there are also some horrible things that people can do when they come together. ISIS, oppressing groups are just some examples. People are more likely to achieve things when they are together – and this is both good and bad.

If you want to know more about Marcus or his work, check out his website. If you’re interested in taking part in one of our master courses or open courses with speakers like Marcus, contact