Written by Filip Zvorinji
The internet and its related interactive technologies have changed the rules of the game for brand managers and companies over the last ten years. The hierarchical one-way communication that worked in favor for brand managers has been replaced with many-to-many communication (Christodoulides 2009). The internet has empowered consumers through greater access to information and the power to instantly publish their own content. This has led to a more participatory audience which allows consumers to launch meaningful anti-consumption campaigns that have visible impact on the market (Krishnamurthy & Kucuk 2009). No longer can companies hide behind their brands due to that consumers of today increasingly responds to the contradictions between the brand’s image and the real activities of the companies who profit from them (Holt 2002). This new environment calls for another way of performing branding activities. The purpose of this post is to demonstrate the nature of this new transparent environment and how brand managers adapt to this and practice branding activities as they should.
Transparency, Empowerment and Social Media
The consumers today demand transparency from companies and the internet has become a powerful tool to get a pass to the backstage activities of companies. They want to know how companies treat their employees, which impact they have on the environment, how and where their products are produced and how they treat there consumers. Consumers are no longer willing to watch whatever companies are presenting onstage. They want to go backstage to see and make sure that the companies are consistent with what is presented onstage (Holt 2002). The development of social media has enabled consumers to both empowerment (Papasolomou & Melanthiou 2014) and the possibility to get a more transparent view into companies and their brands. Because of social media consumers can interact and share information. Social media is often narrowed down to social networks such as Facebook and Instagram. However in this case referring to social media will be used as Internet sites where the participators can produce, publish, control, critique, rank, and interact with online content (Papasolomou & Melanthiou 2014).
Every day, Facebook users generate 2.7 billion likes or comments and upload 250 million photos. YouTube gets more than 800 million unique users visit each month and 4 billion videos are viewed each and every day (Hoffman & Novak 2012). The consumers of today can not only follow, comment and like brands on Facebook and other social networks but they can share their opinions and views about brands on forums, blogs, microblogs and video-sharing sites. Being able for consumers to create their own content on user generated content sites has led to a more participative approach when it comes to branding (Christodoulides 2009).
This empowerment given to the consumers and the increased transparency social media provides has led to that consumer develop their own perspective on brands and companies. This often cause that the desired image of a brand differs from how consumers perceive the image of a brand (Christodoulides 2009). For example if H&M statements about being ethical and socially responsible is not consistent with updates on Facebook, blogs and forums. The image of a brand is determined by the perceived associations of what consumers believe that a brand possess (Keller, 1993). Of course in the past these perceived associations by consumers of a brand has sometimes differed from what the marketer intended to construct. However not in the same speed as today with million voices on Internet that influences consumers’ perceived image of a brand.
The brand manager that used to be guardian of the brand can’t practice the same control over the brand’s image as in the past (Christodoulides 2009). Thanks to the development and rise of social media - branding as we know is about to end (Barwise & Meehan 2010). However it is wrong to think that marketing as we have been practicing in the past and brands as they are will become inapplicable. This new environment makes it more important than ever for brand managers to get the basics right, developing and reliably delivering on a compelling brand promise (Barwise & Meehan 2010).
Brand managers that will be successful in this new environment need to think about how to capture and exploit the opportunities that is presented by social media. They have to think of it in terms of revising their marketing repertoire not in terms of rewrite the whole thing (Barwise & Meehan 2010). As earlier stated consumers of today demand transparency and are more participated than ever when it comes to constructing the image of a brand. Social media therefore require a different kind of marketing that differs from traditional marketing. Social media marketing involves talking with someone instead of the traditional marketing which is talking at someone. Consumers will not respond if you just blast out messages instead you have to focus on the conversation (Atkinson 2013).
So how should brand managers and companies practice branding activities in this new transparent environment?
Conversations around the brand
Christodoulides (2009) argue for that branding activities today is about facilitating conversations around the brand. They must address consumers both as individuals and as communities. In order to facilitate conversations around the brand the brand managers can develop product-oriented brand communities to shape the meaning of the brand and make relationships more relevant for themselves (Cova & Pace 2006). Further developing these communities will enable consumers to sustain a brand’s cult which will enrich the daily experiences of the brands most impassioned fans. These types of community sites have to be built as the polar opposite to the ones that act as a store window for the brand. It is the consumer who has to be in focus, it is the consumer who is showing of and the whole site has to be constructed in a manner that facilitates this self-exposure from consumers (Cova & Pace 2006).
Consumer in focus
The marketing activities that are produced by the marketer must be replaced by marketing activities that are driven by consumers. The marketer must drive consumers to put him or her on display and exhibiting the signs and symbols that represents the brand’s role in his or her real life (Cova & Pace 2006). The brand manager and the company have to become the host (Christodoulides 2009) and take this role in order to facilitate this on-site self-exhibition (Cova & Pace 2006). Marketers should do this in a way that encourages consumers to participate, through relevant and valuable content, as well as to acknowledge their content by interacting with them (Smith, Fischer & Yongjian 2012). Companies need to open up lines for communication trough programs that consumers of the branded products see as something authentic and real (Antorini, Muniz & Askildsen 2012).
Be real and Be honest
By encourage consumers to share information regarding the brand will give consumers the opportunity to co-produce the brand image. This will lead to that that the brand image perceived by consumers will be more consisted with the reality. By encouraging consumer will also prove the consumers that the brand and the company have nothing to hide and satisfy consumers demand for transparency.
However this encouragement can lead to that the brand is experiencing unfavorable exposure which could lead to that the image of the brand may be at risk of being damaged. One way to coupe with this issue is to address potentially problematic posts and further being active on the site by providing information and listening to what consumers have to say (Smith, Fischer & Yongjian 2012).
Consumers of today have forced companies to obligations that link the brand with the company. Consumers today are looking for companies that act like responsible citizens of the community which leads to that their brands can only be trusted when the company has demonstrated that they shoulder civic engagement. Now when consumers have peeled away the façade of brands companies must prove that they are honest and legit (Holt 2002). Brand managers and companies can do this in several ways. They can invite consumers to visit their factories where they produce their products. They can encourage consumers to talk with their personnel. By doing this they will offer the transparency the consumer demands. Further they must go beyond than just stating that they are environmentally, ethically and socially responsible on their own channels. They have to demonstrate this in a way that other channels than their own will confirm and write about these initiatives.
Inspire, Stimulate and Provoke
Last consumers of today will look for brands that can contribute to constructing their identity. Brand managers and companies must therefore produce and provide consumers with original and relevant cultural materials with which they can work with. Consumers will use brands as a form of expressive culture that are not any different from films or music bands. Brand managers must inspire, provoke and stimulate consumers of today. They must help consumers to interpret the world that surrounds them (Holt 2002).
I believe that Volvo with their latest commercial featuring the Swedish national football-star Zlatan Ibrahimovic is a perfect example of how branding should be practiced today. With over 4 million views after two weeks on YouTube, with over 20 000 likes and over 1500 dislikes the commercial continues to stimulate and provoke. Volvo provides transparency by opening up channels for communication on YouTube and Facebook. But most important of all it facilitates interaction among consumers due to the revised national anthem, the love or the hate for Zlatan Ibrahimovic, that he is not ethically Swedish and the slogan “Made by Sweden”. Watch the Volvo commercial here
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