Is it necessary to rethink identity in brand management when branding through social media?

Written by  Master Student at Lund University 


Do we have to rethink identity in brand management when branding through social media?

Internet usage has increased tremendously during the 21st century and according to Qualman (2012) social media has become the number one activity on the web. Traditionally people used internet primarily to expend content and to buy products and services. Today people tend to use internet in a more interactive way by create, share and discuss content, and this is also what represent the social media phenomenon. Many companies also have begun to use social media as an additional communication tool.  (Kietzmann, Hermkens, McCarthy & Silvestre, 2011) In connection with this, consumers also have changed. According to Wind (2008) the new consumer demand and expect companies to offer customization, several options and operate in multiple channels.  He also claims that consumers have gained a different role, with more power and control over companies and brands. As many authors already have identified, this has led to significant changes in the world where marketing operates (Varadarajan & Yadav 2009; Hanna, Rohm & Crittenden 2011; Wind 2008 and Winer, 2009).

Although there obviously have been many changes in the world where marketing operates, traditional branding models continues to be seen as relevant and is still used. But the question is how relevant these traditional and old branding models are, when we live in a completely new world, where social media has gained such great importance? When companies branding through this new marketing tool, is it convenient to hold on to old branding models? This paper is an attempt to answer some of these important questions. To delineate, and because identity is an important concept within branding (Balmer, 2008), I will take a closer look at brand identity models to examine if we have to rethink identity in brand management when branding through social media. The purpose is to examine whether traditional brand identity models remains valid when branding through social media.

The new marketing tool: Social media

Numbers of companies are moving their branding activities online (Armelini & Villanueva, 2011; Fournier & Avery, 2011). Social media tools like blogging, social networking and video sharing has made it possible for open source branding, which means that consumers create their own personal experience of the brand and then they easily share it with others. (Fournier and Avery, 2011) This new rules on the web had led to a participative environment where consumers have gained influence and credibility as content creators by for example blogs, social networks and videos. (Thompkins & Rogerson, 2012 and Hanna, Rohm & Crittenden, 2011)

Towards two-way communication

We have gone from a world where marketing communication was a one-way system where companies was sending out convincing message to the market, to a world where consumers have become participants in the conversations. (Muniz and Schau, 2011) Winer (2009) agrees with this and has created a model (Fig. 2 and 3) that describes in a simple way the developments that have taken place. Today's consumers are using social media extensively, where they interact both with companies and with each other. He explains that traditionally marketing managers controlled the message, but this is no longer valid. They can no longer control the message since they cannot control what consumers says about the brand via social media. According to Armelini and Villanueva (2011), word of mouth is an important factor online since it can spread much quicker and can therefore have a greater impact than in reality.  They explain that word of mouth is one of the sources people consider to be most trustworthy and therefore can negative word of mouth online be devastating.


Figur . Traditional Mass Communications Model (Winer, 2009)

Empowered consumers

There is an agreement within the literature that there has been a power shift between consumers and companies due to the development of the Internet and social media (Chrisodoulides, 2009; Cova and Pace, 2006; Hoffman and Fodor, 2010 and Wind, 2008). Consumers have take control of things that traditionally have been controlled by marketers and Cova and Pace (2006) argue that consumers today have power to take control of companies brand meaning.

Identity in brand management

During the 21st century, brand identity has been a key concept within branding models (Janonis, Dovalienė and Virvilaitė, 2007). The perception of brand identity differs within the branding literature, but in this paper I will use Aakers (1996, p.68) definition that brand identity “represent what the brand stands for”. The most recognized brand identity model within the literature is perhaps Kapferers (2008) Brand Identity Prism, (fig. 1) which will be described in the next section.


Figur . Brand identity prism (Kapferer, 2008, p. 183)

Understanding brand building through brand identity prism

Kapferer (2008) argues that all communications from companies should be synced to their brand/s identity. His brand identity prism model consists of six different facets that should be used to identify brands identity. The prism is divided into two parts. Facets that are placed on the left side are visible from the outside and give the brand its outward expression. Facets on the right side are internal and not that easy to discern from the outside. On the top and bottom these attributes complement each other.

According to Kapferers (2008, p. 182) model, the first step in building a brand is to define its physique, which is “both the brands backbone and its tangible added value”. The second step is to define the brands personality by trying to articulate what kind of person it would be if it were human. Kapferer stresses that this should not be confused with the customer reflected image of the brand, which instead is a depiction of the ideal receiver. Next step is culture and Kapferer argues that there is no cult band without a brand culture. He states that culture is the fundamental principle that governs the brand in its outward side. Step number four is relationship, and he argues that brands relationships define and perceive how most people identify the brand. Next step is reflection, which concerns how the brands perceived client type look like. Reflection and target often get mixed up, but is not the same. Reflection is the perceived target group which the customer wants to be identified with (like the targets outward mirror). The sixth facet of brand identity is self-image and Kapferer (2008) describes this as the target’s own internal mirror when they interact with the brand.

Sending versus receiving side

One of Kapferer's (2008) main points is that he believes that current brand management policy incorrectly assumes that consumers are masters of brand identity and strategy. He believes that companies should focus on the sending side of brand marketing and less on the receiving side, since consumers actually are incapable of this. Joachimsthaler and Aaker (1997) share Kapferers opinions about that the identity of the brand is the core in any good brand building program. They argue that it is very important that brand managers consistently sticks to the brand's identity and they states that: "whenever a clear and strong brand identity is lacking, a brand is like a ship without a rudder“ (Joachimstaler and Aaker, p41).

The concept of brand identity when branding through social media

Traditional brand identity models argue that it is the brand strategist task to strategically use the brand identity in order to be able to control the meaning, aim and image of the brand (Kapferer 2008). Kapferer (2008) makes a distinction between the sender and receiver in his brand identity model. He believes that the brand strategist dictate brand identity by looking at the inner depth of what the brand really stands for. Traditional models about brand identity have the perception that it is dangerous to listen to the audience since the brand then risk losing its identity (Kapferer, 2008 and Joachimsthaler & Aaker, 1997). I argue that these concepts need to be reconsidered since new rules have occurred because of the development of Internet. Consumers have changed and they have gained influence and credibility to be part of the creation of content (Thompkins & Rogerson, 2012).

It is inevitable that consumers sometimes form their own perceptions of what one specific brand stands for, and that it is not in line with what the brand strategist dictated from the beginning. Since consumers today tend to spread these ideas through social media (Fournier and Avery, 2011), through for example communities or youtube, it will imply that the meaning of brands sometimes is out of the brand strategist control. Is it then correct strategy to ignore such information? Should it not be better to stop being stubborn, and instead invite consumers, so that they feel involved in the creation of the meaning of the brand? I mean that brand strategist often has more to gain from listening to their consumers, who in fact have gain more power (Cova and Pace, 2006). Otherwise, they risk making them upset, which can have devastating consequences. Consumers do not just uncritically buy everything brand strategist says or do. If they are dissatisfied, they will show it. Negative word of mouth spread quickly on the Internet and it has become common with anti-brand websites (Krishnamurthy and Kucuk, 2008), such as, and They are sites where consumers show their displeasure over certain brands and trying to destroy the value of the brand by various activities. Fact is that consumers today have more power over companies and they seem to take for granted that they have a right to speak up and be part of the creation together with companies.

Since so many other things are co-created between consumers and companies today, why would this not apply to the creation of identity? I assert that this is exactly what happens in certain brand communities, when companies for instance invite their consumers to participate in creating a new brand from scratch. It happens that companies encourage consumers to share their opinions on everything from the design of products, to the choice of brand name and marketing campaigns. In this case, I argue that it is a matter of co-creation of brand identity. Kapferer (2008) argues for example that a brands identity must be build and derive from the product.  If the consumer is involved in creating the product, it indirectly must mean that the consumer is involved in the creation of the brand identity, to some extent. This apparently occurs sometimes, and the question then is why it would not work for existing brands? Is it really so, that the brand might lose its value if brand strategists let consumers participate and co-create the brand identity? I argue that a lot indicates to the fact that many traditional brand identity models have to be reconsidered. My suggestion is that Kapferers (2008) brand identity prism shouldn’t be dived into two parts. Instead, I mean that companies that are branding through social media need to be receptive and also allow co-creation of the identity of the brand if they want to stay relevant. The brand identity prism is still a great branding model, but when branding through social media, I argue that it has to be a bit modified (see Figure 4).


Figur . Modified Brand Identity Prism (Adapted from Kapferer, 2008)


There are reasons to question whether the perception of identity in branding models still is valid when branding through social media. It is no longer clear that brand strategist dictating brands identity, since today consumers has gained more influence and can change what the brand stands for. Therefore, some branding models must be modified. In this paper I have shown that brand strategists have to rethink the traditional thinking about brand identity in some models when branding through social media. It is important that companies let consumers participate in the identity building part. It does not help to be stubborn and push out the same message if consumers still have a different view of the brand. That time is over!


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Fig 1: Alt_text Brand identity prism (Kapferer, 2008, p. 183)

Fig 2: Alt_text Traditional Mass Communications Model (Winer, 2009)

Fig 3: Alt_text Figur 3. Modified Mass communications Model (Winer, 2009)

Fig 4: Alt_text Figur 4. Modified Brand Identity Prism (Adapted from Kapferer, 2008)