“Less talk, more (inter)action”: The role of marketers in social media branding

Written by  student at Lund University


1. Introduction

In recent years, many companies have experienced decreasing brand loyalty and an increasing reluctance towards traditional marketing activities. This change in consumer behavior can be attributed to the empowerment of consumers which Wind (2008) considers as the “most fundamental change in the history of marketing”. The asymmetry of information which has long dominated the realm of branding, has now shifted towards a more inclusive, participatory approach.

In order to remain relevant, brands must embrace participation and not restrict it. By embracing social media’s ability to facilitate the creation and sharing of user-generated content, brands can repair the lost relationship with their customers. Through acknowledging the power of the new channels, marketers can re-establish the link to the consumer, and encourage an active two-way communication between the brand and its stakeholders. The advent of social media has changed the role of the consumer in storytelling from mere passive listener to an active participant. Now it is the marketers’ turn to listen to their customers.

This paper argues that customers long for a humanistic approach – as a consequence, marketers must go “back to the roots” by telling a story that people can connect to. It is time for them to think less like message-driven marketers and more like human beings again. Thus, through consumers’ liking, comments on brand posts and sharing on social networking sites, co-creation of value in the social media era has become easier than ever. This form of participatory branding, however, relies ultimately on strong relationships with the external audience. Followed by a review of past research that has incorporated this approach, a few key differences between marketers’ role in traditional and social media branding are identified. In the next step, those findings are applied to the case of Oreo cookies, a brand that has managed to become one of the top social media brands within a short amount of time. Finally, practical implications for marketers engaging in relationships with the customers through social media branding are discussed.

3. Theoretical part: The shift towards participatory branding

The advent of social media reflects the shift from push to pull paradigm in marketing: Whereas marketers previously were fully in control of all brand messages and how they were perceived, the empowered consumer is increasingly critical towards those messages and less brand loyal (Wind, 2008). This presents a reversal of the traditional brand consumer relationships. Muñiz and O’Guinn (2001) highlight the social nature of brands, as they address the move from the traditional consumer-brand dyad to the consumer-brand-consumer dyad. This notion implies that consumers should take control and be actively involved in the creation of the brand.

Compared to previous branding, where marketers were delivering messages at consumers who did not necessarily want to hear it, “the new marketplace rewards more participatory, more sincere, and less directive marketing styles” (Deighton & Kornfeld, 2009, p.4). Further, Armelini and Villanueva (2011) argue that people want “dialogue, not a monologue delivered from the stage” (p.30). They suggest that finding the right balance between content and selling becomes crucial in today’s environment. Nowadays brands must take a step backwards, providing interactive information and entertainment via social media before they start selling to the consumer (Vries et al. 2012). In fact, Fournier and Avery (2011) state that “the web was created not to sell branded products, but to link people together in collective conversational webs” (p. 139).

Moreover, Christodoulides (2009) perceives that post-internet branding should facilitate conversations around the brand. With the rise of Web 2.0, marketers eventually need to acknowledge the fact that “social media was made for people, not for brands” (Fournier & Avery, 2011, p. 139). Consumers increasingly develop their own take on companies in online conversations which is often in conflict with the intended message. However, this remains largely outside of the control of the brand. Further, it is argued that the brand manager’s role should rather be seen as a brand ‘host’ than a guardian (Christodoulides, 2009). According to Deighton and Kornfeld (2009) marketers must ensure a form of interactivity that facilitates “identity projects and contribute to the collective making of meaning” (p.9). After all, consumers are no longer “passive receptacles of brand identities projected by marketers; they are active co-producers of brand meanings” (Bendapudi & Leone, 2003, p. 26).

Deighton and Kornfeld (2009) argue the most attractive form of interactivity to marketing is the one that facilitates peoples' negotiation of identity and meaning. Enabling online interactivity also creates opportunities for marketers to contribute to culture – if they offer engaging, relevant content, consumers are more likely to embrace, and not fight, brand messages. Cultural production in social media includes the online sharing of links, images, and videos with friends, family, and others. Referring to the active role of the consumer in the production of modern culture, Fournier (1998) has stated that in the construction of brand relationships is not simply what marketers have in mind for them, but rather how consumers use brands in order to add meaning to their lives.

Since branding is ultimately about reaching out to people on a personal level, marketers may experience a constant “tension” between encouraging creativity and maintaining brand control. As the empowered consumer is given a platform to display their own perspective on companies, this form of open dialogue might backfire against them in the form of anti-brand communities or brand hijacking which may do serious damage to the brand (Armelini & Villanueva, 2011; Cova & Pace, 2006; Krishnamurthy & Kucuk, 2009). Thus, Singh and Sonnenburg (2012) argue that the brand owner is in charge of navigating “its brand content through the consumer-generated content to ensure that consumers' brand stories remain as close as possible to the brand owner's desired story” (p.190). 

4. Empirical Part: More than just a cookie: The rise of Oreo in the social space

Among the companies who have successfully entered the world of social media, is American-based Nabisco (Kraft Foods) with their Oreo brand. With over 31 million Facebook fans, Oreo is one of the top social media brands. As part of the celebration of the 100th anniversary of Oreo cookies, their 2012 campaign “Oreo Daily Twist” entertained fans through humorous, eye-catching ads which were only published on Facebook and other online platforms such as oreo.com and Twitter (Elliot, 2012). Motives for the daily cookie images included the commemoration of holidays such as a red, white and blue cream Oreo for French Bastille Day, the annual Elvis Presley Week, milestones like the Mars rover landing, but also currents events such as the release of iPhone 5 in 2012 (see Fig. 1).

Examples from Oreo's Daily Twist campaign.jpg

Figure : Examples from Oreo's Daily Twist campaign (Source: Pinterest http://pinterest.com/oreo/daily-twist/)

In June 2012, Oreo posted an ad depicting an Oreo cookie with rainbow colored cream to commemorate Gay Pride month. The ad triggered numerous homophobic comments from consumers who threatened to boycott the brand. However, the brand’s parent company stood by their ad, stating that "Kraft Foods has a proud history of celebrating diversity and inclusiveness. We feel the Oreo ad is a fun reflection of our values" (“Cookie”, 2012).

Subject of Controversy_Gay Pride Oreo.jpg

Figure : Subject of controversy: The Gay Pride cookie (Source: Pinterest http://pinterest.com/oreo/daily-twist/)

As the campaign approached its end in October 2012, it was announced that the last ad would be created in real-time in a pop-up agency at Times Square, based on consumers’ suggestions through social media or from people dropping by at the improvised agency where they could submit own ideas and vote on concepts. People could then vote for their favorite cookie ad among the finalists through social media. The final result was displayed on a digital billboard (Elliot, 2012). In this campaign finale, Nabisco’s marketers demonstrated their ability to integrate social and traditional marketing with a real-world experience.

During the 2013 Super Bowl, America’s largest sporting event, the brand recognized another opportunity to become a relevant part of the online conversation. Oreo had already aired a TV spot but when the power went out during the game and many viewers started tweeted their suspicions on what caused the outage, the marketers decided to go “off-script”:  Ten minutes into the blackout, Oreo tweeted "Power out? No problem" together with a picture of a cookie with the caption “You can still dunk in the dark (Little, 2013). To this date, it is the brand's most successful social media message, with more than 15,000 retweets (the same image on Facebook has gotten more than 20,000 likes).

Seizing the moment_Oreo's Super Bowl tweet (1).JPG

Figure : Seizing the moment: Oreo's Super Bowl tweet (Source: Twitter, Oreo Cookie, https://twitter.com/Oreo)

5. Discussion:  Learnings from the Oreo case

The marketers at Nabisco succeeded in building real relationships, as they have acknowledged the importance of personal relationships as an integral part of the Oreo brand. In the case of Oreo, a “cult” has emerged around the various ways in which people eat the cookie (this has been taken up by the brand in their current “Cookie or Cream” campaign). Many consumers associate certain situations and images with their consumption of the brand, such as childhood memories of being served Oreo cookies and milk by their parents. Since Oreo had already an iconic status before entering social media, it had considerable brand equity, but this did not automatically guarantee their success in their online world. During last year’s social media campaign, the brand managed to place the product in the center without actually being self-centered. They did so by adding cultural relevance to the brand: Many of the celebrated commemorations and milestones were global and those that were rather unique events triggered consumer curiosity. By delivering content that was easy to share and adjusted to current trends and popular topics, they facilitated their consumers’ engagement and conversation around the brand.

In the case of the “Gay pride Oreo” ad, the brand was not afraid to take a stand for a minority of their customers which in turn, was rewarded with commitment from most of their supporters. The Oreo case illustrates that like in any relationship, co-creation requires a different level of commitment from both the consumers and the brand. Oreo’s marketers have succeeded in making their branding feel more like a conversation.

However, when engaging in this kind of conversation, brands need to be aware of how they live across platforms and how easily sharable and relevant the content is for the targeted audience. Hence, choosing the appropriate channels according to different purposes becomes indispensable – whereas Facebook emphasizes serves the broad community of the brand, Twitter serves more as a platform for actual conversations, news and customer service. Oreo’s marketers have been careful to follow what Scott (2012) refers to as “the unwritten etiquette” of social media by trying not to advertise their product via these channels. Other burgeoning social networks such as Pinterest or Instagram are used as a fruitful platform for conversations about food in a more playful way.

6. Conclusion

The recent paradigm shift in marketing has caused many companies to rush into social media, trying to fit in newer ideas into their existing framework. Yet, this requires marketers to rethink their role: It appears that if they want to keep up with their empowered customers, they must obtain a good understanding of the appeal that brand-related interactivity has for their targeted audience. The marketer’s main objective should therefore be to cater to the human needs of their consumers and delivering content that has some kind of value to their customers: Eventually, people want to be informed and entertained on social media.

Two-way communication through social media not only leads to better results and improves quality, but also strengthens the emotional bond between consumers and the brand: On the one hand, the brands can offer direct service and regain trust through immediate reaction to customer questions and concerns, while on the other hand an active social media presence provides marketers with meaningful consumer insights regarding their desires and their attachment to the brand (Barwise & Meehan, 2011). If marketers recognize consumers as “creators and disseminators of branded content” (Fournier & Avery, 2011, p. 194), this is likely to pay off in the form of increased brand loyalty.


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