How can increased consumer interaction benefit or harm brands in an online setting?

Written by Masters Student at Lund University


Marketing is unique, as it could be described as being a new or old discipline.  While other sciences, such as economics and accounting are deeply rooted in traditional and classical theory, Marketing is an anomaly, as it has the ability to evolve and change based on current conditions.  With this being said, I have chosen to write about three areas that deal with marketing online that can either harm or benefit a brand in an online environment, depending on how they approach the current subject. 

I chose to write about this specific topic because I felt it needed more analysis, is highly relevant, and also because of the impact it has on all of our daily lives as consumers.  Thanks to advances in technology and the Internet in particular, we live in an age where we no longer have to make ill informed purchases, feel buyers’ remorse, or sit in silence if we’ve had an unpleasant experience with a company.  Increased communication and information strongly empower the consumer, but does consumer empowerment benefit or harm brands?

Today, in the web 2.0 era, there is a continued shift in power between buyers and sellers, although the many variables involved influence just how substantial the shift in power can be.  If utilized correctly, this increased interactivity could result in more fluid business transactions, faster response times to costumer dilemmas, and increased reception and constructive criticism from customers.  But unfortunately, in the short time that firms have began interacting in a web 2.0 environment, they have been slow to evolve in many cases, and have had to face the resulting consequences.

2. Purpose

The purpose of this paper will be to discuss and analyze the three major issues the author feels affect customer interactivity in an online environment.  Some important points that will be discussed are how increased information can lead to loss of a brands message, how online communities continue to have an impact on brands today, and the effects of world of mouth communications in a web 2.0 setting.

3. Definitions used

Brand Community

A brand community can be defined as a group of people that possesses a common interest in a specific brand and create a parallel social universe rife with it’s own myths, values, rituals, vocabulary, and hierarchy (Cova and Pace, 2006).

Anti-Brand Community

Non geographically bound communities that oppose specific brands or corporate brands, and in which consumers take on roles as social activists (Hollenbeck and Zinkhan, 2006).   

Web 2.0

The second generation in the development of the world wide web, conceived as concepts, trends, and technologies that focus on user collaboration, sharing of user-generated content, and social networking (, 2013)

Word of Mouth Communications

A type of referral communication from person to person that tends to rely heavily upon the credibility of the source of that information or referral of the product, service, or company being referred (, 2013)

4. Theoretical Framework

In order to better understand the various concepts that will be discussed in this paper, we will begin by discussing the theoretical framework surrounding the issues.  Following the theoretical framework for each subject will be empirical evidence and a discussion of these these issues in further detail.

Three areas that can either benefit or harm a brand in a web environment

4.1. Loss of control of brand message resulting from increased information

One issue that is often cited as being modern phenomenon caused by the Internet is lack of control of messaging due to increased information.  Prior to the advent of the Internet, marketers were forced to rely on methods such as direct mail, advertising and telemarketing in order to invoke a response from the intended consumer (Deighton and Kornfeld, 2009).  These types of methods allowed marketers to shape the brand message and meaning and then disseminate the information to their intended customers.  Although this type of marketing was flawed and not without problems, it did allow marketers to more easily control how their brands were portrayed.  Today, these traditional methods are used less frequently in an online setting, and marketers are finding it difficult to preserve the original brand message.

One problem that marketers are increasingly facing while marketing online is to control the meaning and message of a particular brand because of increased consumer empowerment (Deighton and Kornfeld, 2009).   In a pre-Web 2.0 environment, if a consumer wanted to find more information about a particular brand or product, they would need to consult the corporate website.  Also, in the physical world, a shopper that wants to buy a product needs to manually go to the store and inspect the products (Allen and Fjermestad, 2001).  Unless the shopper wanted to travel to each individual store, a time-consuming event, the amount of information they could obtain was limited (Allen and Fjermestad, 2001).   Today, because of the Internet, third parties can deliver product information; consumers can shop more comprehensively and at virtually no cost (Allen and Fjermestad, 2001).  A survey done by comScore, an Internet marketing research company, found that 24% of internet users access online reviews such as those found at, prior to paying for services delivered offline (Zhu and Zhang, 2009). 

So, if there is a loss of control of brand message resulting from increased information, how should marketers react in order to benefit and avoid risk?  Brands today should attempt to focus on authenticity and how they can provide relevant cultural materials to consumers (Holt, 2012).  Yes, there is more information today, but if marketers can produce content that is culturally relevant that consumers truly place value on, they can overcome the overabundance of information.  It can be argued that Apple Computer fans choose to be because of the way they identify and construct the brand in their own lives.

4.2. Online Communities

Online communities are of particular importance to marketers as it is estimated that over 40 million people worldwide participate in these types of communities (Sicilia and Palazon, 2008).  More importantly, when used correctly, these brand communities can be used as marketing tools by companies and also to increase customer loyalty (Sicilia and Palazon, 2008).  Previously, less attention was given towards brand communities as they lacked the tools required that have made them indispensible in a web 2.0 environment.

One company that was a pioneer of understanding the importance of creating online communities in order to target specific markets was Proctor and Gamble (Barwise and Meehan, 2010).  When Proctor and Gamble created, it achieved its goal of peering into its target audience’s world, but also because the platform was authentic and engaging. (Barwise and Meehan, 2010).  Another early adaptor of the importance of online communities has been Virgin Atlantic Airlines.  Virgin Atlantic launched a website called Vtravelled, where customers could exchange advice, stories and inspiration (Barwise and Meehan, 2010).  The key to Virgin Atlantics’ success with Vtravelled cannot be quantified with increased sales, which were minimal, but rather the sense of authenticity that people feel when they navigate the site.  Virgin Atlantic does not take actively try to push sales with this site, but rather takes a tone of voice of a traveler which reinforces the brands images and gives novel customer insights (Barwise and Meehan, 2010). 

Inversely, marketers and companies must be aware of the dangers of anti-brand communities.  Today, there is a growing resistance to transnational brands and corporate globalization (Hollenbeck and Zinkhan, 2006).  In these anti-brand communities, the consumers take on the role of social activists, and voice their opposition to corporate domination (Hollenbeck and Zinkhan, 2006).  Also, these anti-brand communities either oppose corporate brands such as Wal-Mart, but also specific brands such as Marlboro (Hollenbeck and Zinkhan, 2006).    

One of the best-known global brands, MacDonald’s and the anti-brand communities formed against them.  Currently, the two biggest anti-brand communities against MacDonald’s are and  Although these sites have different agendas, they are equal in their attempts to disseminate information about the MacDonald’s, and present a forum in which members can discuss issues ( and  These anti-brand communities allow social activists to group and donate for effectively to support their causes ( and  Today, marketers must try to take an active role in these brand communities, in order to truly understand consumer behavior, and to in understand perceived misconceptions or opinions activists may have.   Also, today marketers must try to play a role in the formation of these brand communities, so consumers can have a sense of belonging with others in the community, and marketers can interact more easily with these various communities.

4.3. Word of Mouth communications in an online environment

In traditional marketing, the effects of ‘word-of-mouth’ communications could not be amplified to reach such a significant audience to truly affect a brand, but because of the vast reach of the Internet, the level of importance has increased exponentially.  In the 1980s, The Technical Assistance Research Programs, Inc conducted research for the Coca-Cola Company to measure the power that word-of-mouth communications had when a customer had a unpleasant experience.  The result was that customers that felt their complaints had not been adequately resolved told an average of 9-10 people (Customer World, 2013).  Although, this can depend on the product, this soon became a rule of thumb among marketers for many years of word of mouth communications, although somewhat of a myth.

Today, because of Internet marketing, marketers and companies must pay extra special attention to the power of word of mouth communications.  One interesting piece of empirical evidence is the case of        ‘United breaks guitars.’  In 2008, a musician named Dave Carroll was traveling with his $3,500 guitar, when it was subsequently broken because of neglect on the part of the United baggage handlers.  After United Airlines refused to reimburse him, Carroll wrote a protest song in order to vent his frustration with the incident.  The accompanying video has been viewed over 12 million times, and proved to be a public relations disaster for United (, 2013).  Incidents like this make it necessary that brands today have contingency plans in place, as well as controls in various departments such as public relations and customer service management to ensure that they can be dealt with appropriately (Deighton and Kornfeld, 2011).

Today, in order to benefit from positive work of mouth communications, marketers must be quick to react when faced with incidents, as well as by using novel approaches.   One manner that has been used with mixed success to reach customers and create positive word of mouth communications is known as Buzz marketing.  This type of method is an umbrella term for the power of a marketer to pass on a marketer’s message without the individual feeling as if they are receiving advertising messages (Deighton and Kornfeld, 2009).   Another brand that was successful at becoming a cultural producer is Unilever with their Campaign for Real Beauty (Deighton, 2007).  This change gave their product a point-of-view rather than a traditional brand position (Deighton and Kornfeld, 2009).  Although, it was criticized by some, this initiative has demonstrated that ever changing landscape of internet marketing.


The author of this paper has used the course materials, as well as external documents to examine the different ways increased consumer interaction in an online environment can be beneficial or harmful.

These three areas: loss of control of messaging as a direct result of increased information, the power of online communities, and the influence of word of mouth marketing have been outlined by the author to show how they can be used in a rich, fruitful way by marketers, or how they can be detrimental to a brand when misused or ignored.

For future research, it would be interesting to examine how practitioners can adapt and incorporate current research into existing protocol in order to avoid situations that can escalate quickly.  Also, future research could benefit from changing current marketing models to reflect that these post Web 2.0 advances cannot be viewed statically, but rather as a new science, which can change, or incorporate new technology periodically.

6. References

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Asset Based Marketing (2013) Myth: The average unhappy customer will tell 10 people about the poor service he or she received.. [online] Available at: [Accessed: 17 Feb 2013].

Barwise, P. and Meehan, S. (2010) The One Thing You Must Get Right When Building a Brand. Harvard Business Review . (n.d.) What is word of mouth communication? definition and meaning. [online] Available at: [Accessed: 19 Feb 2013].

Cova, B. and Pace, S. (2006) Brand community of convenience products: new forms of customer empowerment – the case “my Nutella The Community”. European Journal of Marketing.

Customer World (2013) Measuring the Grapevine- Consumer Response and Word-of-Mouth. [online] Available at: [Accessed: 17 Feb 2013].

Da Silveira, C. et al. (2010) Reconceptualizing brand identity in a dynamic environment. Journal of Business Research.

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Deighton, J. and Kornfeld, L. (2011) United Breaks Guitars. Harvard Business School Press. .

Hanna, R. et al. (2011) We’re all connected: The power of the social media ecosystem. Kelley School of Business.

Hollenbeck, C. and Zinkhan, G. (2006) Consumer Activism on the Internet: The Role of Anti-brand Communities. Advances in Consumer Research, Available at:

Holt, D. (2002) Why Do Brands Cause Trouble? A Dialectical Theory of Consumer Culture and Branding. Journal of Consumer Research.

Krishnamurthy, S. and Kucuk, S. (2007) Anti-branding on the internet. Journal of Business Research. (2013) [online] Available at: [Accessed: 19 Feb 2013]. (n.d.) M c S P O T L I G H T. [online] Available at: [Accessed: 19 Feb 2013].

Muniz, A. and O'guinn, T. (2000) Brand Community . Journal of Consumer Research.

Sicilia, M. and Palazon, M. (2008) Brand communities on the internet: A case study of Coca-Cola’s Spanish virtual community. An International Journal.

Web 2.0. (n.d.). Unabridged. Retrieved February 19, 2013, from website: 2.0

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