Branding in social media – challenge or opportunity?

Written by Masters Student at Lund University


Internet has dramatically changed how we live our lives and consumers have become active participators in branding (Hoffman, 2000). Fournier and Avery (2011) argue that innovations always have affected brand management. The television facilitated better segmentation and Internet are improving relationships. For that reason, it is natural to move the focus from targeting and segmentation to relationships. (Fournier & Avery, 2011) Vargo and Lusch (2004) argue that market logic nowadays is more service centred. But consumes do not only set the agenda for what is considered valuable, they are also active participants and co-producers of value and Internet is a good example of this phenomena. (Vargo & Lusch, 2004; Singh & Sonnenburg, 2012) Traditional media like TV, radio and outdoor advertising carry controlled one-way communication, but with social media marketing it is hard to control what is being said about the brand (Wiener, 2009)  

Fournier and Avery (2011, p 193) state, “The technology that was supposed to empower marketers has empowered consumers instead”. Social media has led to a shift of power to the consumers (Krishnamurthy & Kucuk, 2008; Barwise & Meehan, 2010). Consumers are empowered to communicate with companies and consumers online, but they can also produce own things. (Christodoulides, 2011)“The Social Web is similarly reconstituting branding, and dramatic change is afoot. We’ve moved from a world where the brand set the agenda, to a world where consumers decide if—and when—brands are invited in.” (Fournier and Avery, 2011, p206)

A majority of social media users use it partly to follow brands (Van Belleghem, Eenhuizen and Veris, 2011) and the amount of companies that use social media was expected to increase from 42 % in 2008 to 88% in 2012 (Smith, Fischer & Yongjian, 2012). Barwise and Meehan (2010) argues that social media has increased the importance of good brand management. But Christodoulides (2011) argues brand managers cannot protect their brand in the same way as before. Instead, they have to become more of a host since the consumer also takes part in building the brand.

So, shall social media be seen as great branding opportunity, or is it just a possible threat that companies must manage as good as they can? The purpose of this paper is to discuss social medias impact on branding. It will contribute to the field by summarize relevant theories in the field. I will also provide two examples of how companies have used social media.  

Theoretical framework

American Marketing Association (2013) defines a brand as “a name, term, design, symbol, or any other feature that identifies one seller's good or service as distinct from those of other sellers." This definition is widely accepted, but it can be argued that it is a bit too broad. According to Tarnovskaya, V (Lecture, 2013-02-06) De Chernatony and McDonald define brand as: “an identifiable product or service augmented in such a way that the buyer or user perceives relevant unique added values which match their needs most closely.”  She argues in favour for this definition, since the definition provided by American Marketing Association is very broad. According to Chrisodoulides (2009) a brand is always a brand, regarding of context. He argues that in Web 1.0, factors as site navigation and speed of download was very important cornerstones in online branding. He further states that in Web 2.0 these factors have become hygiene factors, but now social media has become equally important (see figure 1.)

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Fig.1 (Chrisodoulides, 2009)

Singh & Sonnenburg, (2012, p.190) defines social as “discussion forums, blogs, social platforms, and video-, photo-, and news sharing sites that provide networks, relations, and interactions” (Singh & Sonnenburg, 2012, p.190) Scott (2011, p. 38) defines it “Social media provide the way people share ideas, content, thoughts, and relationships online. Social media differ from so-called mainstream media in that anyone can create, comment on, and add to social media content. Social media can take the form of text, audio, video, images and communities”. This definition is similar to the one by Singh and Sonnenburg, but I prefer the later since it clarifies the difference between regular- and social media.

Theorists have different opinions suggestions regarding the implications of co-creation and brand management. Barwise and Meehan (2011) argue that in the era of social media, it is even more important to create and deliver a reliable and convincing brand promise. They also recommend using social media for trust building, improvement of the brand promise and innovation beyond the familiar.  They argue that social media primarily shall be used for consumer insights and not selling. The authors encourage companies to go viral, but stress the importance to protect the brand.  Barwise and Meehan (2011) further argue that it is okay to join conversations, but you need to pay attention to (and follow) the social rules. The authors are very positive towards social media and they argue that although it can boost brand awareness and sales, the most important benefit is the rich consumer insights.

Fournier and Avery (2011) present a more pessimistic view on brand management. They describe the new branding landscape as the age of social collective, transparency, criticism and parody. The authors further state that since brand managers no longer control the brand, it would be more suitable to call it risk management instead of brand management. Krishnamurthy and Kucuk (2008, p.1119) describe another potential challenge, namely anti-branding, which can be defined as “online spaces that focus negative attention on a specific targeted brand”. The authors found that strong brands are more likely to be attacked by anti-branding sites.

Singh and Sonnenburg (2012) states that the downside with co-creation is that owners no longer have complete control of their brands, but the authors still present co-creation as something positive that companies can benefit from. Smith, Fischer & Yongjian, (2012) have a similar view and argue that social media sites can have both positive and negative impact on a brand. They state that if a company ignore a social media channel, it can be ignoring a great opportunity. The authors further recommend companies to observe social media communities, in order to listen and reply when it is needed. The fact that companies are better off monitoring the Web can be seen both as an opportunity and a threat. Personally, I think its much better to focus on all the great consumer insights that you could gain, instead of treating it as a necessary evil. I argue that branding in social media can be tremendously beneficial, if it is done in a successful way. Social media enables the consumer to participate in brand storytelling, which can help to build different kinds of awareness and provide meaning to the brand (Singh & Sonnenburg, 2012). Consumers who join brand fan pages are more positive to receive news about the brand and they also tend to be more loyal (Bagozzi & Dholakia, 2002).

The opinions on online branding are very diverse and I believe that it is a natural consequence of the fact that the new technology has resulted in both opportunities and challenges. Some researchers have chosen to focus on the opportunities, while others have put larger emphasis on the challenges.

Case Discussion


The Tip-experience consists of a viral YouTube video that reached over four million views in less then a week (MyMarketing.Net, 2010). The video, which was uploaded on YouTube in 2010, starts as a regular amateur video. A bear is suddenly approaching a hunter. His friend screams to him to shoot the bear, but he answers that he cannot. Then, the video is suddenly interrupted and the watcher gets to choose between to shoot or not shoot the bear (see fig. 2). (YouTube, 2010)

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Fig. 2, Watcher’s pick (YouTube, 2010)

The watcher is redirected to another site, but regardless which alternative is chosen, the participator will end up watching the same video. The second unexpected element is that the huntsman decides to change the story by grabbing a Tipp-Ex from a banner on the video’s right side, and removes the shoot word in the headline with the Tipp-Ex (see fig. 3). (YouTube, 2010)

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Fig. 3, Hunter grabs the Tip-Ex (MyMarketing.Net, 2010)

Screen shot 2013-09-09 at 3.49.31 PM.png

Fig. 4, Engaging watchers (MyMarketing.Net, 2010)

Now the hunter invites the users to rewrite the story by filling in an own verb instead (see fig. 4) In most cases the bear and the hunter will come up with fun videos on the chosen word. (YouTube, 2010) In a press release the company state that there are over 40 different endings to the story. (BIC, 2010) Each user has seen an average of 19 videos for 6 minutes and tried 15 different words. (MyMarketing.Net, 2010).

I argue that Tipp-Ex already have a clear brand promise. But since it is such a simple product, the campaign would probably not be so interesting if it evolved around the brand promise. Instead it choose to innovate beyond the familiar by letting people take part in deciding the story. I think this is a great example of a campaign that invites the consumer to actively take part, but under well organised circumstances. The risk is minimal since consumers do not create anything themselves, they can only choose between the available material.    

The BP crisis

BP had positioned the corporate brand as the environmental friendly petroleum company for several years. When the oil spill was revealed, the core values that the brand stood was destroyed and Greenpease awarded BP an Emerald Paintbrush for its greenwashing (Fournier & Avery, 2011) Most people would probably say that the company handled the crisis very bad, but there is at least one thing they did right, namely that they used social media for interaction with stakeholders. One example is that they uploaded pictures and videos of the cleaning process. (Cecilia, 2012). Off course BP is still struggling with its reputation, but I believe that their brand would have ben even more damaged if they had not reached out to the stakeholders through social media.

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Fig 5. BP greenwashing (Cecilia, 2012)

This case supports Fournier and Avery’s (2011) theory that branding in social media often takes the form of risk management. But even though it can be used for risk management, it can definitively be used for brand management as well. I argue that companies who only use social media to put out fires that have already started are ill prepared and will therefore face big challenges in the future.


Internet and social media have empowered consumers to take part in the creation of brand meaning to a higher extent than before. This paper has shown that there are different views of branding and social media. Some authors have an optimistic view, while others are more negative.

The Tip-Ex case has shown that it is possible to go viral, involve your fans and still protect your brand. I argue that this is a good example of a company who actually are practicing strategic brand management in social media instead of risk management. The BP example indicates that social media can be used as risk management. I argue that even though some companies use it to manage emergency situations, the Tip-Ex case indicates that it can be used for traditional brand management as well.


Fig.1 alt_text Chrisodoulides,  Web 2.0

Fig. 2, alt_text Tip-Ex, Watcher’s pick

Fig 3, alt_text , Tip-Ex, Hunter grabs Tip-Ex

Fig 4, alt_text, Tip-Ex, Engaging watchers

Fig 5, alt_text, BP greenwashing


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