Changes and opportunities for online branding in a post-communist space

Written by Alexandra Sferle -

While increasingly present in our daily lives, the Internet is a very young medium and

is still in its experimental stage. Technology is continuously improving every day and

companies have to quickly adapt to the new changes. One of the most challenging

aspects is that the consumer is able to adapt to the new media much more quickly than

the companies that should be using it in the first place. The world is just beginning to

realize the potential of the Internet, which offers a perfect medium for spreading

creative ideas that are already changing the world. The digital media revolution has

had a profound impact on brand strategies (Hoffman, 2000) – the field of branding

being, without any doubt, one of the most dynamic and fast-moving fields in

marketing today, mainly due to the social media revolution.

While the dos and don’ts of branding through social media are still in their infancy in

the Western world, the Eastern post-communist space presents itself to branding

professionals with even more challenges, determined by consumers unaccustomed to

product differentiation, that were forced to skip important evolutionary steps in order

to understand the modern marketing world (Bogdan, 2010). However, the unique

position of these markets offers insights that can easily be transformed into immense


This paper is aiming to offer branding professionals unique angles of analyzing an

issue that is not yet sufficiently investigated, by addressing the research gap through

lessons gained from valuable case studies. Throughout the paper, both challenges and

opportunities for online branding in a post-communist space will be assessed – on one

hand, by using the concepts and information the literature is providing, on the other,

by analyzing the cases of two Romanian brands from the communist era, ROM and

Pegas, which have been reinvented and re-launched in a capitalist economy, using

strategies that involved online tools.

Theoretical background: Online branding in an East European context

The Social Web is redefining and reconstructing branding approaches and models

(Fournier and Avery, 2011). Through the revolution of the dynamics of branding,

consumers are able to influence a company’s messages and product assortment


(Hanna et. al, 2011) and can actively contribute to their improvement. Therefore, the

social media revolution has made is more important and urgent than ever to ensure the

proper delivery of the brand promise (Barwise and Meehan, 2010).

Investments in building the brand using online tools are justified by the creation of a

resonance with the company’s customers, determining them to actively seek for the

brand’s messages and ultimately become loyal. Marketers need to prioritize these

kinds of actions and see them as long-term revenue creating activities (Wallace,


The adaptation to such an environment - characterized by speed, opportunity and

change - came slowly for Eastern European brands. Therefore, only a handful of local

companies used to define branding as something more than logo, packaging and

advertising (Bogdan, 2010). It is challenging to understand that online success is not

only guaranteed by the proper use of social media tools, but highly depends on the

integration of the brand promise at every consumer touch point (Barwise and Meehan,

2010). Therefore, one of the most important aspects and challenges of building a

successful brand online is a clear understanding of that brand’s audience, before the

development of any further strategy. This constitutes a solid foundation that leads to

well-targeted messages. As Barwise and Meehan (2010) argue, the true value of

social media in branding is not in the immediate selling or promotion, but rather in

gaining valuable insights about a company’s customers.

In today’s world, brand managers can no longer fully control the reach of the

company’s messages – rather, consumers have this kind of power. Along with this,

branding has become, in many cases, an open source activity (Fournier and Avery,

2011), in which anyone can have a say in an ongoing online conversation about the

brand’s attributes and behavior. Stories and storytelling represent a powerful tool used

to create connections with the brand by allowing consumers to correlate their own

experiences with the brand story (Singh & Sonnenburg, 2012). However, good brand

management ensures that the consumers’ brand stories remain as close as possible to

the original one. Such brand narratives can be triggered through the creation of

tension (Singh & Sonnenburg, 2012) – inciting incidents arising from the brand’s

history, archetypes or cultural values, as it will be illustrated in the ROM and Pegas

case studies.

Social networks represent the ideal tool for creating online word of mouth. In

comparison with the traditional one, that offered little control, but at an almost

inexistent cost, e-WOM requires a communication strategy that is constantly

supported and invested in with time and human resources. However, its interactivity

and rapidity make it an appealing instrument for creating brand awareness,

complementing the company’s initiatives related to traditional marketing channels

(Armelini and Villanueva, 2009). The ultimate purpose of online branding could be

seen as the creation of connections among members of the community, in order to

ensure the perpetuation on online word of mouth (Hennig-Thurau and Walsh, 2003).

According to Krishnamurthy and Kucuk (2009), anti-brand websites and complaint

forums are tools that consumers use in order to focus negative attention or to provide

information on a specific brand that dissatisfies them. On the other hand, Cova and

Pace define brand communities as the “group of people that posses a common interest


in a specific brand and create a parallel social universe (subculture) rife with its own

myths, values, rituals, vocabulary and hierarchy.” In the two case studies, it will be

demonstrated how both of these actions can eventually lead to positive results.

A specific challenge for branding in post-communist countries was making the

consumers, accustomed to only one product per category, aware of the fact that they

may choose among a multitude of promises and levels of quality. An enormous

opportunity arose – almost any product that was successfully distributed would

become also a success in terms of sales – without the help of any promotion or

branding. However, the availability and accessibility of information of the internet

changes this and forces contemporary brands to be authentic and transparent, making

sure that its brand promise and behavior are perfectly aligned (Fournier and Avery,


Until the social media revolution, a powerful imbalance was characteristic to Eastern

European markets– global brands managed to deliver their promise, but failed in

sociologically and culturally understanding the customers, while local brands were

closer to the cultural emotions of their target but failed to constantly deliver the

promise (Bogdan, 2010).

However, after a period when global brands became more and more successful,

increasing the competition, determining many local brands to disappear, a trend of

coming back to old-fashioned products can be observed all over Eastern Europe

(Berkowitz, 2006). The nostalgia is determined by the consumers’ sense of patriotism,

desire for uniqueness and memory triggering.

According to Dr. Christian Duncker, from the Empircal Social Research group in

Hamburg, the new success in the online media of surviving products from the

communist era is mainly caused by the “retro trend”, making such brands more


Mini case studies

Even though the end of communism marked the beginning of a new philosophy of

consumer choice in Eastern European markets, there are still many brands that, either

by relying on tradition or on reinvention, have a success story to tell.

ROM is the first Romanian-produced chocolate bar, present on the shelves since

1964. Its packaging did not change significantly over the years, simply illustrating the

Romanian flag; its communication strategy was based on consistency. During the

2000s, it started to lose its popularity, especially among young people that were

highly attracted by Western brands. Therefore, starting with 2005, they began to

target the new generation, starting an online campaign under the slogan “Strong

sensations since 1964”, in which communist practices as censorship or propaganda

were illustrated in an ironic way, emphasizing the chocolate’s past and transforming it

into a fashionable, retro brand.


The non-conventional approach was then taken to the next level. In times of political

and social instability, young Romanians no longer took pride in their nationality;

moreover, according to studies by McCann Erikson, almost 80% of them wanted to

leave the country, thinking that they can achieve something only by emigrating. It was

not the ideal situation for a chocolate with the national flag on it. Using this insight,

ROM chose to challenge their national ego. Therefore, the Rom chocolate was

launched under a new packaging, using the American flag, the communications in

online media started to be in English, under the slogan “The taste of coolness”

(Dumitrescu, 2010).

Annoying social media messages, that indicated to the American takeover, lead to a

unique phenomenon: people assaulted ROM’s website, defending the Romanian flag

values, and old packaging. The results? Over 100 Facebook pages that were

complaining about the rebranding, over 10 online petitions, a group with more than

11.000 members, YouTube videos that were mocking the new packaging and even a



Luckily, after one week, it was revealed that this was only a teasing campaign for the

actual rebranding – as requested, ROM returned to its initial packaging and slogan,

bearing strong patriotic messages. In the first week only, the campaign reached 67%

percent of Romania, mainly through online channels, and it generated EUR 300.000

worth of media appearances and Facebook fans rose by 300%, leading to gaining the

old position of “most popular chocolate bar”.

Therefore, by correctly using insights specific to East-European markets, an excommunist

brand managed to become market leader and to reconnect with the public

through an award-winning campaign (two Grand Prix Lions in Cannes) that targeted

young people and used the media of communication specific to them – Facebook,

Twitter and website interaction.

The second mini case study reflects how online communities with a passion for retro,

communist products managed to resurrect an old-forgotten brand. Pegas is bicycle

love brand that seized to exist simultaneously with the birth of capitalism in Romania.

However, consumers between 25 and 35 still regarded the product as a symbol of

their childhood, a symbol of their freedom. Therefore, the social media revolution

provided them with the appropriate tools for creating a brand community and

discussing ways of reigniting Pegas. Even though they didn’t have to whom to

address, since the company that used to produce them didn’t exist anymore, the online

petitions that they signed and engaging discussions served as crowdsourcing for a

startup that decided to re-launch the bicycles, using a new, hip, design, but conserving

the elements that made Pegas such an appreciated product (Bicicleta Pegas, 2012)

Moreover, the online buzz created around the brand attracted Ursus, Romania’s

largest beer producing company. Ursus saw the re-launch of the brand as an

opportunity to endorse a 100% local brand and to participate in rebuilding its success

(Kubis, 2012). Therefore, they created a Facebook campaign that encouraged

consumers to participate in a virtual bike-ride, raising awareness regarding cherished

Romanian values – the application having over 30000 users that supported the

collaboration (Vidru, 2012).


The re-launch was a success, the Pegas bikes currently being sold online and offline,

and steadily becoming a must-have urban item.


In the business world, there are still many differences between East and West. One of

those differences is how branding is approached, both by marketing professionals and

consumers. While general rules as the power of communities, storytelling and

crowdsourcing are globally applied, Eastern European markets need specific insights

that deal with consumer values and specificities.

The transition from communism to consumerism lies in the efficient use of tools that

the online branding landscape is offering. Through targeted communications, using

the relevant channels for today’s fast-moving online world, even traditional, excommunist

brands can write valuable stories through successful reinventions.



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