Why set up shop on Facebook?  To sell more product?  Nope.

To build your brand. Yep.

That’s the approach that CPG giant Unilever is taking to launch a brand extension to its billion-dollar mega-brand Axe (‘Lynx’ in the UK) in the UK, ‘Lynx Attract for Her’.  A first 100 cans of the hither-to men-only brand went on sale to the brands 700K+ fans on a pop-up Facebook fan-store.

100 cans at £3.25 ($5.11) netted the brand all of £325 ($511) when they went on sale at 4pm, January 23, 2012 – and sold out pretty much immediately.  Why bother?

Cynics will call it a PR stunt. Unilever can claim “launched on Facebook” credibility for the youth-oriented Lynx Attract for Her. And in the trade press, the stunt has captured headlines.  Good for Unilever sales teams negotiating shelf space in supermarkets and drug stores, and good resumé fodder for the digital team too.

But we think launching products with pop-up stores on Facebook, and more generally brand-building with pop-up f-commerce is smart branding.

Why? Because word of mouth is critical to branding, particularly at product launch, when adoption rates can be accelerated by word of mouth. And Facebook is essentially a word of mouth platform. Ultimately, a brand – a trademark imbued with value – exists in the mind and on the lips of customers, not as a label on a product.  So the more positive word of mouth you can stimulate at product launch the bigger and better your brand.  So from a branding perspective, it makes good sense to launch on Facebook.

Moreover, research shows that word of mouth makes brand advertising more effective (essentially because it adds source credibility to advertising messages), and with Unilever throwing a multi-million pound advertising campaign behind the Axe/Lynx for women launch, the pop-up fan-store will help with advertising effectiveness.  Essentially the Axe fan-store will build brand value by activating brand fans (700K+ registered on Facebook) through fan-first exclusivity.

Another advantage of using a temporary pop-up fan-store (as opposed to an Asos style permanent store) is that Unilever neatly sidesteps the politics of a brand selling direct to consumer and risking the wrath of retail partners; Joey Kau, e-commerce manager at Unilever, said, “There are no plans to move away from our current distribution channel and we’ll continue to distribute products in the way that we have been doing.”

There’s often a disconnect between the worlds of sales and branding, but ultimately branding is all about sales – specifically your ability to extract margin.  From a commercial point of view, brand building is all about increasing your ability to extract margin by imbuing your brand name with value.  By imbuing a brand with word of mouth value, pop-up fan-stores in social media can have a powerful brand-building effect. Kudos Unilever.