Corporate Branding and Consumer Empowerment in Web 2.0 – a Foucauldian Perspective

Written by Daniel Mattisson 


In this paper, I will address the overall question “Who is a company’s new customer in the Internet era” provided by the course outline. To give an answer to this question I have chose to focus and narrow my research into a field that I find particularly interesting – consumer empowerment. Hence, I will provide a link and discussion between how to examine the relationship between the modern consumer and the corporation based on a Foucauldian perspective. More precise, I will provide a theoretical discussion on how Web 2.0 has enabled increased consumer empowerment through the use of knowledge and discourse and how this has influenced the way in which we view, judge and organize corporations. Up to date, the marketing literature has mainly focused on the role of the corporation in this relationship emphasizing the need for increased consumer surveillance and data mining in order for more effective segmentation. Little attention has been directed towards the role of the consumer and how this group can influence, monitor and discipline the former (Pires et al. 2006). My aim in this study is therefore to shed light on some vital aspects regarding this relationship as well as the inherent complexities of the market brought by Web 2.0.

Q1: According to a Foucauldian perspective, to what extent does knowledge affect the relationship between corporations and consumers regarding consumer empowerment?

The dialectical relationship between corporations and consumers

Today, modern consumers are portrayed as having an unprecedented power to choose, to customize the goods and services that they want, to avoid the undesired ones and to shop around for the best price-quality combinations. This consumer power reallocates the product-push approach to a consumption-pull strategy and reconfigures the supply chain to a demand chain that supposedly provides consumers with exactly what they want (Shankar et al. 2006). In particular, this change have been connected with the advent of Web 2.0 where the corporate monologue have been replaced by a many-to-many communication where consumers are empowered to talk to both firms and other consumers alike (Hoffman & Novak 1996, Fournier & Avery 2011). The information asymmetry between consumers and firms that for several years had worked in favour of brands had suddenly been reversed (Christodoulides 2009). This is also emphasized by Bernoff and Li (2008) who argue that this new marketing landscape have given consumers the power to search and acquire knowledge regarding different products or services from a broad public audience present at whatever time he or she desires, hence tilting the power balance from corporations to consumers (Bernoff & Li 2008, Pires et al 2006).

This shift has according to Christensen et al (2008) led to some major alterations regarding how we perceive corporations as well, for example an increased focus on the corporation itself, its identity and brand values. Today, consumers increasingly buy the companies behind the products or the branded goods rather than the good itself (Christensen et al. 2008). To stand out from competitors, a brand therefore needs to deliver and promise a premium social, emotional and aesthetic value that resonates with consumers needs and wants (Aaker 1996, Christodoulides 2009). In essence, this can be seen as the basic fundament of branding – to add and crystallize a superior value and meaning that will provide better marks of distinctiveness to the mere physical product (Christensen et al. 2008). To make this distinction clearer for the end consumer, many corporations have used the concept of Integrated Marketing Communication (IMC). The idea is to adopt a similar positioning and “look and feel” to all communication efforts in order to generate not only sales of each media but interaction effects as well (Winer 2009). According to Christensen et al (2008), contemporary corporations thus need to brand themselves as total or monolithic entities, hence directing the branding efforts on itself as a corporation rather than on its individual products. The metaphor and concept of the “body” has therefore been widely used in IMC literature to describe the preferred state of an organization. The concept thus implies that the holistic perception of a brand can be controlled from a managerial point of view, and that it is the corporation that attaches meaning to all messages thus building on a classic one-way communication scheme. Hence, the assumption is that as long as the messages are consistent over channel and time, the corporation has the ability to control and manage the corporate identity as well as the subjective perception of the consumers. Logically, the concept of IMC has become a rational theory and managerial tool to apply onto an organization when striving for consistency in communication efforts – both in an offline as well as online environment. However, many corporations have not yet understood the full scope of Web 2.0 and as argued by Stuart & Jones (2004), there has often been an inconsistency in communication between the offline and online corporate environment. Further, they argue that “it is important for companies to realize that the interactivity and interconnectedness of the internet changes communication forever” (Stuart & Jones 2004:86). To have “control” over these dimensions and what is said about a brand is in Web 2.0 simply no longer possible (Christodoulides 2009). Corporations thus needs to develop new strategies and policies in how to handle the complex issues brought by Web 2.0 if they want to be able to cope with this rapidly changing environment (Martin et al 2009).

A Foucauldian perspective on consumer empowerment

According to Morgan (1997:xxi), “ideas about organizations are always based on implicit images or metaphors that persuade us to see, understand and manage situations in a particular way. They have strengths. But they also have limitations”. Therefore, a metaphor is in its nature always reductive – it reduces the complexities of reality (Doyle 2011). As noted above, the metaphor of “the body” has been commonly used to describe the integration process of organizational entities into one unifying expression (Christensen et al. 2008). The metaphor provides us with a clear distinctions between what is inside versus outside the organization, as well as where the origin of the corporate identity, or soul, is located. Identity, in this sense, is in organizational literature often referred to as something “central, distinctive and enduring over time” (Christensen et al. 2008). The notion of the body has further been described by Foucault (1987), who argued that the body, as such, is an effect of discourse and knowledge acting upon it. According to Foucault, the body is very much a body to be disciplined by and for others (Corrigan 1997). In one of his works, Discipline and Punishment (1987), he introduced a new type of power and control that was based on the ability to observe all prisoners at an mental institution at once – the prison inspector located in a watchtower at the centre of the prison courtyard. Foucault called this Panopticon – or the all-seeing eye (Foucault 1987). Knowing that all their actions are visible at every possible time, the prisoners adapt their behavior and act as if they were monitored or under supervision. Thus, according to Foucault, even the possibility of being observed disciplines the prisoners’ behavior (Foucault 1987, Christensen et al. 2008, Corrigan 1997). Hence, Foucault describes a society in which individuals are disciplined, obedient and normal through constant observation, measurement and threat of exclusion or punishment (Shankar et al. 2006). The power to discipline should in this sense not be understood as something that presses the subject (the prisoner) from outside – for example a prison guard. Rather, we should understand power as something that is forming the subject – an omnipresent part of every sphere in our life (Shankar et al. 2006). Hence, the concept of Panopticon can also be applied to both consumers and corporations present on the Internet by looking at how power (either consumer or corporate) is manifested in the subjective rules and norms that guides and disciplines online behavior.

In the era of Web 2.0, and as previously stressed by Foucault, knowledge is the basic foundation for consumer empowerment – a consumer with more knowledge will feel more powerful (Foucault 1972, Pires et al. 2006). Consumer empowerment thus derives from information and knowledge that consumers may appropriate from a number of different sources, for example the Internet. The extent of consumer empowerment will hence depend on the customers’ ability to discern and process potentially useful information that may satisfy their needs (Pires et al. 2006). This neo-liberal view of the market is thus built on the assumption that the more freedom of choice the consumer has – the more empowered the consumer is (Shankar et al. 2006). Pires et al (2006) further argues that:

from a consumer perspective, access to more information about the market is complemented by larger choice sets due to the global reach of the internet, by the ability to exchange information and opinion with peers, to change their own perceptions and behaviour in a rapid and largely unchecked manner, and to define brands on their own” (Pires et al 2006).

Hence, through the active use of knowledge, consumers can act as social agents in shaping the overall market discourse via knowledge sharing communities and social media sites. Web 2.0 as a medium has thus inclined an important tool for consumers to acquire and share both positive and negative information and knowledge about corporations. Thus, consumers nowadays have the ability to shape and discipline the overall “body” of the corporation through the active use of knowledge and discourse, for example by re-defining brand values and brand perception in peer-to-peer networks and social media sites. Hence, in Web 2.0, corporations face a more competitive and darwinistic society that values knowledge and transparency and that favours corporations that are able to act and take advantage of these ideals and turn them into customer value.

Discussion and Conclusion

As noted above, the “Panopticon” as well as the “Body” are metaphors and all metaphors are deliberately reductive – they reduce the complexities of reality. Therefore, they are in themselves only a limited and partial way of thinking. However, as stated by Morgan (1993), metaphors also have strengths by the way they able us to see things in a different light. This article has aimed at focusing on brands and branding as an effect of knowledge and discourse through the use of the organizational metaphor of the “body”, commonly used in marking and management literature. More specifically, it have used the concept of Web 2.0 and how this new medium have led to a change in how consumers use and gather knowledge and information, and how this has come to effect the way in which we view, treat and think of corporations and the branded market as a whole. As stated above, knowledge is at the heart of this new relationship and hence shapes the powerbalance for both parts.

As I have shown above, there are many ways of analyzing the dialectical relationship between corporations, its brands and consumers. The changing conditions that the Internet and Web 2.0 have brought into this relationship are comprehensive. For corporations, this new environment brings both opportunities and threats. To aim for corporate control regarding marketing activities, for example when using concept such as IMC, is however bound to fail due to the complexities of the modern market. Consumers are in this market empowered to search and gather knowledge at wish hence reducing the need for corporate messages. The practical use of rational managerial concept such as IMC may thus indicate an oversimplification of the market. For consumers, the concept of consumer empowerment is in large built upon the notion of consumer choice and that increased knowledge will liberate consumers from the will of corporations. However, what happens with this power if consumers do not know what he/she wants or what he/she is interested in or desires, as well as the best way to pursued these feelings? More research may be done on these subject as well as more empirical research on how consumer power is manifested in consumer - corporation interactions.


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