Social media branding vs. the empowered consumer

Written by Lidia Vukcevic


Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and now newly launched Vine (Vine, 2013), it doesn’t seem to be a stop for social media sites but they are not the only one increasing. According to Armelini & Villanueva (2011) a report showed that 84% of the Internet users in Europe are part of at least one social network and the figure keeps growing every month. Marketers have learned the hard way that social media sites were made for people and not for brands (Fournier & Avery, 2011; Deighton & Kornfeld, 2009) and they have recognized the increasing empowerment of the consumers (Deighton & Kornfeld, 2009). The consumers have made it harder to brand through social media and the marketers don’t have the full control over the brand message anymore (Mangold & Faulds, 2009, cited in Fournier & Avery, 2011). However, the choice for marketers to enter the social doesn’t seem to exist according to Cadbury’s brand manager Ross Farquhar, who states “Brands are obsessed with social media, but if you do not participate, consumers will set up a Facebook page anyway. The crime is not doing it properly” (Stuart, 2010, p.18).


Since the marketers have entered the consumer’s field and the consumers decide which brand is welcome, branding through social media has brought both opportunities and challenges for the marketer. There has clearly been a change from traditional marketing when the marketer had full control over their brand message since it was a one-way communication (Armelini & Villanue, 2011), to a power shift where the marketers cannot control what is being said about their brand (Kietzmann, Hermkens, McCarthy & Silvestre, 2011). These problems have led me to ask the following research questions:

In what way can marketers deal with opportunities and challenges social media provides? And what effects can the consumer’s empowerment have?

I framed the research by looking at the two FMCG brands Oreo and Raging Cow to present real case examples of how they have worked with social media and what effects the consumers have/had on their brand.

Conceptual framework

The empowered consumer

According to Wind (2008) it’s important for the marketer to understand that consumers have become empowered and to some extent co-creators of the brand message. Deighton & Kornfeld (2009) states that social media is an opportunity since they can spread the message further to peers and through online communities, and Fournier & Avery (2011) explains that social media facilitate these consumers sharing the same interest in the brand, to connect with each other. Barwise & Meehan (2010) recommends that social media should be included in all companies since it enables to communicate, build trust and improve the brand promise with their consumers. However, the authors argue that marketers should realize the scale and speed of social media and that the brand message cannot be fully controlled. Further on, Fournier & Avery (2011) argues that the challenges with social media is that the control lies in the consumer’s hands, they determined whether or not the brand is invited and take advantage of the brands exposure. Winer (2009) states that marketers are developing campaigns through social media since they can engage their consumers much more compared with traditional media. Additionally, Armelini & Villanueva (2011) argues that another benefit when comparing traditional media with social media is that the online word-of-moth is immediate and interactive, which makes it easier to communicate with the consumers as well if something goes wrong there’s a possibility to adjust it along the way. According to Armelini & Villanueva (2011) research, they state that products that are bought and used more privately are less talked about, compared to brands bought less rarely and used publicly.

Armelini & Villanueva (2011) argues that social media isn’t a substitute for traditional media, and that the marketers should view Facebook and other micro blogs as cafés rather than billboards, the different media have different roles and on social media people want to engage not receive advertisements. Hanna, Rohm & Crittenden (2011) agrees and suggests a blend of the two to get both engagement and reaching consumers. Hudspeth (2012) continues and argues that it’s not enough to just create a Facebook or Twitter campaign and expect results, focus should be to engage instead of sell and make it an experience. Hudspeth (2012) suggests that the marketers should compare it with a person and what attributes they would like them to have. Karpinksi (2005) explains the term “bottom-up marketing” idea and that focus should not be about the marketers on top to communicate down to the consumers, instead they should listen to what the consumers are saying, which is easier for marketers to do with social media.

Empirical analysis and discussion

Oreo has made success on social media because they have succeeded to engage and interact with their consumers on the different social media sites they are using. “Fan of the Week” and “Birthday of the Day” as well as letting their fans share their Oreo moments and upload pictures of themselves makes their fans feel appreciated and makes them engage and share their message to friends and communities (Ignite Social Media, 2013; Oreo, 2013). This can be compared to Wind (2008) making the customer a co-creator since their fans are acting as marketers when posting their own pictures with Oreo cookies, which almost can be seen as “advertisement”. Their Facebook page can also be compared to Armelini & Villanueva (2011) using the page as a café rather than a billboard. Oreo are not trying to sell anything on their page, opposite, they have a conversation with their fans. They have understood Hudspeth (2012) argument that it’s not about having a page it’s about engaging and listen to your fans. Oreo also benefit from blending traditional media, as Hanna et al. (2011) argues for. With their yearly Super Bowl commercials they affect their consumers offline in a way that the consumers continue to discuss it on social media sites with their peers (Huffington Post, 2013a). Additionally, what makes Oreo successful is the fact that they are always up-to-date with events their fans engage in. One extraordinary example is during the blackout that occurred on Super Bowl 2013, they immediately send out a tweet “You can still dunk in the dark, which was spread and retweeted 10 000 times in one hour” (Huffington Post, 2013b). This was possible because they had 15 persons in charge to tweet if something happened during the Super Bowl (Wired, 2013), which clearly shows that they acknowledge the social media opportunities and compared to what Winer (2009) stated that it was not possible to engage in this way with traditional media. 

However there are challenges when entering the social media and Oreo experienced a major challenge when they launched a photo of the Rainbow cookie on their FB page. This was to support the gay rights and unfortunately they found a lot of their fans opponents. It generated nearly 22,000 comments on Facebook, which shows the speed and scale of the social media, and the comments were mixed with supporters and opponents (Newsfeed Time, 2013). The opponents even set up a Facebook page about boycotting not only Oreo but also their parent company Kraft Food (Dailynews 2013). s. However the associate director at Kraft Foods responded to the opponents by stating: "As a company, Kraft Foods has a proud history of celebrating diversity and inclusiveness. We feel the Oreo ad is a fun reflection of our values" (Basil Maglaris, Kraft's associate director of corporate affairs, Dailynews 2013). Oreo came out from the crisis with loyal fans defending the cookie and they used social media to keep this crisis from getting worse (Marketing Cloud, 2013). This clearly connected to Armelini & Villanueva (2011) arguments that marketers along the way can take control of negative feedback. This also shows the bottom up marketing, that Oreo listen to the consumers opinions and acted thereafter.

In 2003, Dr.Pepper/7UP experienced the challenges of social media as well. It was with their campaign for the new flavoured milk product Raging cow that upset consumers (Hoffman & Fodor, 2010). Their strategy was to bribe chosen bloggers with t-shirts and gifts certificates to write about their product and in exchange they would write and post links to the Raging Cow site (Hoffman & Fodor, 2010). However this strategy fell flat since a group of suspicious bloggers revealed that they were given gifts in exchange to promote the Raging Cow product. Because of this unfair business the bloggers started a boycott, which forced Dr.Pepper/7UP to withdraw the product (Hoffman & Fodor, 2010). A big mistake Dr.Pepper/7UP did was that they took the traditional marketing into social media by paying bloggers for the advertisement. They saw it rather as a billboard than a café, which made them fail and they misjudged the power of the consumers and the consumers want to trust their peers and not to be fooled, they want to engage not receive messages, which is stated by several researches. This can also be compared to Barwise & Meehan (2010) statement that marketers need to recognize the scale and speed of the social media and that they cannot control the brand message, which Dr.Pepper/7UP tried to do by paying the bloggers to write what they wanted. It also shows the consumer empowerment that Fournier & Avery (2011) discuss. The consumers clearly have the power to not welcome the brand by boycotting it, which a new brand needs to take more in consideration since they don’t have loyal consumers backing them up.



The findings are based on the previous two cases but to draw generalised conclusions, more research has to be done. However, lessons can be learned from these cases and be applicable to other FMCG brands. The main findings are the fact that the consumers have gained more power since it’s their field and they can choose to boycott a brand they don’t support or act as co-creators and spread brand messages for brands they do like. The Oreo case clearly shows the importance of what the researchers are stating about engagement and that it’s a powerful tool and making the customer co-creator is useful as long as you don’t pay them. To face the challenges of the costumer empowerment marketers need to listen to them and use the bottom-up marketing and not force marketing messages as Dr.Pepper/7UP did. Acting immediately and be up-to-date are social media opportunities that marketers can use to engage the consumers or if crisis occur. The empowerment means less power for the marketer but doesn’t mean lost power. The Raging cow clearly show that try to control the brand message isn’t possible on social media, rather go with Oreo’s strategy and making it an experience and provide your consumers with material to engage with such as giving them possibilities to share pictures of themselves on the brand website.


I’ve looked in to FMCG brands and they are engaging people even though they are bought often and used privately therefor the focus shouldn’t be what type of product to brand, instead the marketer should be looking at how they can engage people and make them become a part of this brand. I consider it today to be more important than ever for the marketer to understand the brand’s personality, to know what character to bring to the social media. It’s not enough to have a logotype that attracts the eye of the costumer, when branding through social media, the brand is using the consumers platforms and therefor needs to become one of them to make them like and twitter about the brand. By seeing it as a person I consider it to be easier to handle the opportunities and challenges of the social media.

For further research I find it interesting to study what makes a consumer engage in a brand as well as if the brands personality has become more important when branding through social media.



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