December 4, 2014
Written By Karl Pollinger
The paper’s aim is to explain how the Internet and specifically social media platforms have changed the brand-consumer relationship in regards to branding control and influence. Do brand managers have lost parts of the control over the brand and is it a positive development?
Once upon a time, in a realm far away, consumers were simply consumers - nothing more nothing less. They were bound to believe and accept the status quo set by companies and their respective marketers and brand managers regarding the latter’s products and services. That was the given relationship; the brand manager created an identity message (preferably around the company’s core values) and the consumer then interpreted the message and created his/her brand image – done (Kapferer, 2008, p. 174; Christodoulides, 2009). The only mechanism, which every now and then brought light into the matter of this relationship, was newspapers and other third party media, which uncovered scandals or gave ‘unbiased’ product information. However, the term ‘unbiased’ should be used carefully since it is an ideal and presupposes that third parties do not have their own agenda to distort information.
But then, in 2004 the corner stone of a new era was set by the foundation of a, at that time unexpected and unprecedented, mass social media platform commonly known as Facebook (Business Insider 2010). By now Facebook has accumulated a massive 1.23 billion monthly users, according to British newspaper The Guardian (The Guardian 2014) and has since been joined by other influential social media platforms such as Twitter, Instagram, and Google+, among others.
Together, they build a powerful tool for the common man and woman to share and listen with/to their fellow consumers (Papasolomou & Melanthiou, 2012). As a consequence, news are created and disseminated worldwide within split seconds. Tuten (2008) defines social media as online sites (or applications) through which users can produce, publish, control, rank, and interact with online content.
Afore-mentioned was not possible prior to the age of social media. Before, people could merely write letters or emails of concern to companies. This gave brands and their managers the hiding space of anonymity. A consumer wrote a letter, the brand manager did not answer, no one seemed to care, and due to the lack of social media platforms that was the end of the story.
Due to the emergence of mass social media like Facebook, brand manager have now the opportunity to animate consumers to participate actively and engage them emotionally into the branding process and, in connection with social media, can provide a platform for open discussion.
Yet, what is actually meant here by ‘opportunity’ is the fact that brand managers are rather forced to listen to the consumers who became active due to the simple fact of being able to write reviews, provide information about the brand at topic, and most of all share it via social media platforms (Singh & Sonnenburg 2012). Cova and Pace (2006) call this consumer control-takeover adequately a serendipitous hijack, in which the consumer captures control of the brand, unexpected by the actual brand manager.
Social media can therefore be seen as a catalyst that enables an ever-changing role-play between all participants/stakeholder. The consumer might be the brand manager at some point, sharing his/her views on Twitter, Facebook, and/or other available media and within minutes the social network can take over and manage the brand’s image without the influence of the actual manager. Singh and Sonnenburg (2012) describe this phenomenon as a metaphorical, improvised role-play in which the consumer and brand manager switch roles from the passive listener to the active participant from time to time. As a consequence managers loose partially control of their brand during the play - all thanks to mass social media platforms.
A fairly recent example where a company loses said control is the following: The Serco Group video (Serco Group Video), which was published in 2009 on the online platform YouTube. The rather critically toned video, made by a journalist, was aimed to unveil the intensity and scale the British based Serco Group is operating on. In a sense, it is warning the consumer of Big Brother (who is watching you), just as the fictional character in George Orwell’s world-renowned novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Within days the video was watch hundreds of thousands of times, mainly due to vast sharing on social media platforms such as Facebook. During the following months and years, more and more major (mainly British) newspapers such as The Guardian (The Guardian 2013) picked up on the story behind the Serco Group and the company’s brand reputation was hurt considerably as a result.
Problems for the Serco Group peaked in late 2013 as the British Serious Fraud Office, a sub-branch of the Ministry of Justice, put the group under investigation (Financial Times 2014). Inter alia, Serco’s mistake was and still is the fact that they did not build relationships with their stakeholders on a web-based social media platform, which is one key to successful brand strategies in the internet era (de Chernatony & Christodoulides, 2004). Quite simply put, they missed the chance to facilitate social media platforms as means to create an open relationship with consumers and other stakeholder. Serco rather hid behind the ambiguity and the enigmatic anonymity of silence. Granted, Serco is a B2B company with whom the average consumer entertains no direct business interaction; however, due to Serco’s operations (see Video above) they affect people in their everyday life. Thus, in order to strengthen and deepen the brand-consumer relationship for the Serco group in a more effective way, they might have to facilitate social media generated content (Van den Bulte & Wuyts, 2007) such as YouTube videos in a positive instead of an uncontrollable negative way.
On the other hand, a company who mastered the idea of partially losing control in order to connect with their consumers is the Danish-based Lego Group. In fact they are so good at it that consumers not only actively participate and provide innovational ideas during the development and production process but actually help Lego to progress products (Antorini et al., 2012). Lego realized as early as the 1990’s that consumer consumers have valuable knowledge which a company should utilize in order to generate a much larger (and much cheaper) pool of innovators. Now, Lego enthusiast can co-create entire Lego lines and earn recognition for their work. As did Chicago-based Architect Adam Reed Tucker with his creation of Lego Architecture (Antorini et al., 2012). This entire process was vastly enhanced by social media platforms on which third party developers are able to share ideas and creations with fellow enthusiasts (Antorini et al., 2012). In the end, by letting go of some of the control over the brand, the Lego Group was able to not only connect with their fans but also increase the innovative output of the company.
Other notable positive examples in the likes of Lucasfilm (providing material for amateur Star Wars DIY film makers) or Doritos (actual amateur films used as commercials) exist in abundance. The latter are just some of the many companies that managed to utilize social media platforms, and the therefore resulting loss of control over the brand, positively - even ingeniously. They managed to avoid what many brands, like McDonalds or Fox News, are currently facing – anti-brand web campaigns run by frustrated consumers, aimed to force negative attention on brands they deem harmful (Krishnamurthy & Kucuk 2008).
To answer the question whether brand managers have partially lost control over the brand due to social media. They clearly have. Above stated examples of the Serco- and Lego Group are just a few cases. Many more cases are widely known such as the ongoing Dove Real Beauty Campaign launched in 2004 and their latest video Dove Real Beauty Sketches, which went viral and sparked user generated mock-videos such as this one. The latter displays how a marketing campaign and its meaning can be distorted by the consumers’ ability to share their view via social media platforms. The Dove campaign earned further criticism, which rapidly spread on Facebook (i.a.) resulting in a Business Insider (2013) article with the title: “Why People Hate Dove's 'Real Beauty Sketches' Video”.
As to the second part of the question above – Is it a positive development? Yes, I believe so. Social media platforms cast off the veil of ambiguity and mystery that can lead consumers astray. Companies; however, need to actively engage and encourage the consumer to participate on social media platform in order regain control and also send a clear message of openness and trust. Also, brand managers have to realize that social media platforms caused a shift in power. Papasolomou and Melanthiou (2012, p. 320) speak here of ‘spreading the word about brands from a one-to-one basis to a one-to-hundreds, or even one-to-thousands.’ It all displays how brand managers lost control through social media – now it is time to adjust and regain.
In the end the questions is whether or not brand managers can fully trust what the consumer believes is right for the company and also from an ethical point of view right for fellow consumers. Is the consumer informed enough about intensions of a brand manager, is the consumer capable of accurately knowing what he/she actuals wants/needs? And is social media maybe also threatening to become a tool to easily dispense false news such as in the case of Konny 2012?
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