September 15, 2014
Written by Rabail Junaid
Internet technology has revolutionized the world, it has revolutionized the way we think, behave and express ourselves. Today is the day of cyber-culture- where information is created, re-created, misinterpreted, misrepresented and even marred on several platforms such as MySpace, Facebook, Twitter and other strong social media platforms. Social media in this cyber-culture attracts more than 100 million visitors, creating trillions of connections media each day, disseminating phenomenal amount of information at incredible rate (Akar,& Topcu, 2011). Although tempted to see the wide implications of social media, the focus is on consumers, their behaviours and political attitudes towards the brand.
Today on an average, a consumer devotes 32% of his or her media consumption to online channels in 2010 as compared to 26% in 2008 (Fournier & Avery 2011). However to consumers, social media and social networks are by no means a medium for marketing or sales, but rather only conversations, connections and networking. Social media is a place where nobody is a ´consumer´ or ´audience´, but a participant in ´conversation´ (Fournier & Avery 2011). This is an interesting paradox which directs us to the notion of a ´Political Consumer´
Political Consumption is relatively a new phenomenon in consumption where the constant flow of information combined with mass media has let the consumers to form their own opinions and political ideologies individually Larsen 1998; cited in Micheletti & Isenhour 2010). Foucult describes it as a source of liberation from traditional source of information recieval. With the help of Knowledge (as a source for liberating truths) and Power (as a force of ideological domination) (Foucault 1980; cited in Thompson and Tambyah 1999) in this cyber culture, individuals are free to create their own political ideologies which they think are powerful enough to challenge strong brands. This way, the societies are fragmented to form a world where there is no one truth, but rather a self-created personalized truth for each individual (Foucult 1980; cited in Firat and Venkatesh 1995). This self-creation and expression of individualized truths forms a political consumer: who believes he/she has the power to change strong brands through his ideas and expressions. A political consumer is empowered to express his/her viewpoint, which liberates him/her from a stereotypical non-political and traditional and one-way expression used by brands over offline media. Over the period of time, we have observed several forms of consumer politics on strong brands like boycotts against Nike, criticism of unfair trade on Starbucks, obesity accusations on McDonalds, health hazards on Marlboro and so on. However, a political consumer must not be only seen as trouble maker: brands like Dove, P&G and Apple are success stories of leveraging consumer politics on social media.
Strong Brand Presence and Consumer Politics on Social Media:
The common features of social media are that it is multidirectional, it is participatory and it is user generated (Akar,& Topcu, 2011). In social media where the presence of brands is strong, there is a constant creation and re-creation of brands in terms of ideologies and brand perceptions and brand equity. Consumers are turned from bystanders to hunters to participants (Hanna et al, 2011). Social media has transformed consumers into marketers and advertisers and they are empowered to create negative and positive impressions on the company with knowledge and power. Several examples of strong brand presence could be seen on social media; Dove is an ideal example. Dove´s real beauty campaign is attempt to empower the real consumers and present them as beautiful regardless of age, ethnicity, size and skin type. The campaign has received massive social media response.
Strong social brand presence can be traditional brands or open brands (Fournier & Avery 2011). Depending upon the strategic objectives of a brand, a company may decide upon having one or multiple touch points on social media like Facebook communities, Twitter accounts, YouTube Videos, Blogs, Pins, Photos and the like. However, the richness of social media does not exhaustive here. Social media makes brands open-audience indulge themselves into a plethora of information though User Generated Content (UGC) (Soares et al, 2012). UGC can be in form of facebook statuses, tweets, photos, blog posts, product reviews, pro-brand or anti-brand campaigns, websites and so on. (Aljukhadar & Senecal 2011) describe an audience category of social thrivers- a group that is most active and interactive on social media through UGC and using it as a source to freely express their political ideology towards brands. This content has a multiplier effects due to excess social connectivity.
The notion that consumers are empowered to show their political ideology in case of brands is a big challenge for strong brands. The power of consumer collectives invites unintended and unseen consequences that challenge long established brand equity (Stuart & Jones, 2004). Due to the multiplier effect of social media contents, size of the brand has become a liability (Fournier & Avery 2011): the strong/bigger the brand, the harder. Brands realize that this is the age of bottom-up marketing where consumers are intelligent, organized, proactive and hold a political ideology and even a small mishap and the brand has to face the music (Hanna et al, 2011).
Consumer Politics and the Case of McDonalds:
On social media, although most of the marketing is for free, it is also uncontrollable and multidirectional (Atkinson, 2013). Unlike traditional marketing, social media marketing is not about talking to someone. Rather, it is about talking with someone (Atkinson, 2013). McDonalds is very interesting example of strong social media presence. With the golden arches most recognizable symbol in the World, the success of the brand is unarguable. McDonalds have always been related to a fun filled, casual, fast and economical dining place with amazing service and quality, until consumer politics on social media took over. Social media has put the brand into unanticipated controversies that severely damaged the brand equity. McDonalds has been into serious accusations and lawsuits for spreading obesity epidemic and health problems among kids and elders. How has the brand perception suddenly changed while the food and quality was still consistent? The answer is a political consumer. While the brand moved from traditional, one-way communication to an open, non-traditional two-way communication, the consumer hijacked the brand and re-branded it with what he/she felt like (Winer, 2009). The viral content portraying McDonalds as unhealthy, immoral and mean brand spread to an extent of being uncontrollable. The Academy award nominee documentary named Supersize Me is a great story of the power to political consumer; the video has been viewed, shared, followed, re-made and written about million times.
Recently, the brand´s social media failure of "tweetjacking" is been called as one of the worst in year 2012. In order to make a stronger brand image, the company purchased a Promoted Tweet campaign, with the hashtag, #MeetTheFarmers. This was an attempt to create connection between quality or food and individual farmers. The campaign seemed to be doing very well until it decided to change the specific hashtag with a more generic #McDStories tag without specifying the context of its use. This allowed consumers to hijack the brand and spread negativity by quoting their own stories related to health, obesity, and other problems.
McDonald´s immediate response was to pull off the social media campaign altogether without any explanation further incited the audience By the time the disaster made the news, brand sentiment raged out of control.
McDonald´s could-be Strategies towards Consumer Politics on Social Media:
On social media, brands take different approaches; three of them are described by Fournier & Avery (2011). Depending upon brand´s strategy, one or more of these three strategies can be adopted: The path of least resistance, Playing its game and Leveraging Web 2.0.
By indulging in social media blunder, McDonalds actually took part in path of least resistance. The brand actually bowed to consumer pressures over social media and gave away the control to consumers. By not describing what #McDStories was intended for, it initially invited tweetjacking and after seeing the consequences, pulled off the social media campaign altogether. However, the brand should have adopted the strategy of leveraging web 2.0 by letting the consumers participate in #MeetTheFarmers stories. This hashtag was more specific and clear in terms of context of use. Playing its game is a strategy where strong brands participate on social forums where there is an on-going positive discussion about the brand, category or any related context.
Moreover, Hanna et al (2011) discuss three different strategies that could be useful in on-going developments of the brand on social media:
“Improvisation is not about doing one right thing (output view), but about continuously doing things right (process view)” (Vera and Crossan 2004; cited in Hanna et al 2011)
The process of improvisation is therefore more important than its outputs and it is the best tactic to deal with consumer politics on social media. Very often brand fail to improvise of current strategies and make clarifications. Rather, they prefer pulling the content off the social media. McDonalds did the same in hopes that it will neutralize the consumer sentiments. Instead, the consumers were more offended because it took away the charm of participation and two-way communication. The audience were turned from co-creators to bystanders.
Managing brand performances is about managing tension. (Singh, S. & Sonnenburg, S. 2012)
Managing tension does not mean managing outraged consumers and their political standings. It is about constantly providing the brand a chance to be talked about with support of a storyline, a brand ideology. Strong brands like McDonalds must have a constant tension management that can incite the audience, make them participate while controlling the brand at the same time. The idea of meet the farmers seemed to be working very well; the brand was successful in pulling the strings until the hashtag was changed to McDStories. The brand gave away too much power to consumers.
Understand the Audience:
The core purpose of social media should be to gain consumer insights (Barwise, B. & Meehan, S. (2010)
For strong brands like McDonalds, it is imperative to take into consideration what is consumers’ political ideology about the brand: what they think about and want from the brand. Social media platform is an ideal and cheaper way to do that. In social media where most of the brands are open, the consumers are participants, co-creators and disseminators of brand. The tension occurs when their political ideology and brand ideology differ. McDonalds seemed to take the consumer sentiments too lightly; while still being top and growing brand worldwide, it underestimated the social media in ruining the whole brand equity.
Despite of all the consequences for strong brands like McDonalds, social media and political consumer are here to stay. Therefore it is imperative that brands learn from mistakes, improvise for future, adapt to new dynamics and fine-tune their short and long term strategies to fit into the new environment.
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