Written by Emily Widen
It is an accepted fact of today’s business world that the strong social media presence of consumers can highlight and magnify brand weaknesses. It is now up to brand managers to figure out how to incorporate this public and real time forum of their consumers into the brand strategy in a positive way. This may be an easy task for some companies, those that have regular positive enforcement in the social media conversations of consumers, but what about the negative conversations that occur? Can a company known for bad customer service survive in today’s world where the consumers have so much power?
First let us examine how social media has changed the standard consumer. It can best be described as a shift in power (Deighton and Kornfeld, 2009), where the power is being removed from the marketer and given to any consumer who is willing to take the time to use this new power. The options for using this power is essentially limitless. While the large and known social media outlets; Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and Tumblr, are most likely sufficient to voice an opinion, individuals have an always growing and always expanding network of social media forums to use.
This has a large impact on companies. It is not an option to simply be active on the main social media sites and monitor conversations there, it is essential to monitor all platforms possible in order to get a sense of the brand that is being promoted or negated by consumers. This is a large task and demands that companies specifically set aside time and resources to this cause.
Another aspect of this shift in power that must be addressed is the potential for wrong information to be circulating around the internet about a brand. The simple fact is that companies no longer have control of the brand image. Sure, the company controls the initial intended brand image that is portrayed to the public, but it is certainly not a given that this brand image will remain intact once it reaches the masses. Thorsten et al (2013) discuss the two major differences of the changing consumer and their behaviour and give more insight into this possibility. Not only is the new consumer one that actively participates in conversations throughout their strong social networks, but these behaviours lead to original brand messages being changed and greatly increases the unpredictability of a message (Thorsten et al, 2013).
What is a company to do? First, companies must acknowledge this new consumer world that is happening. Second, they need to develop a strategy to use this to their advantage. One theory on how to do this is to co-create brands with customers (Thorsten et al, 2013). This interactive approach, while removes a lot of control from the brand managers themselves, can lead to a greater brand awareness with the consumer. More importantly, it can lead to a great connection between the brand and the consumer, if the consumer has been involved in the process. Thorsten et al (2013) further discusses the delicate balance that is needed for this to work. The company must be involved enough to drive the conversation in a correct way, yet not too restrictive to allow for true consumer engagement (Thorsten et al, 2013).
Perhaps the most important aspect of this shift in consumer behaviour and power is that companies now have the ability to connect with consumers individually all the time. Social media is both informal and personal (Thorsten et al, 2013) and therefore is a powerful way to interact with consumers in a way that was not possible ten years ago. Again, this is not an easy task for brand managers or marketers, yet it is vital that it is being pursued.
So, what do these new empowered consumers want? Wind (2008) suggests that these new consumers want customization, communities, multiple channels, competitive voice, and choice. This can be summarized by stating that the new empowered consumer expects to have access to the brand when and where they want it. The implications for businesses is simple, they must offer choices and drive their consumers to where they want them to go, prior to the consumer themselves knowing what they want. While this may be easy to identify it is not easy to achieve. Wind (2008) offers a way to achieve this, suggesting a change in thinking for brand managers and marketers. Shift from focus on the company to focus on the network, balance control with consumer empowerment, and balance specialization with integration (Wind, 2008).
To further explain the current environment of the consumer, Hanna et al (2011) examines myths that occur in marketing. Two key points from Hanna et al (2011) are that consumers are dictating the nature, extent, and context of marketing exchanges and companies do not control their messages anymore (Hanna et al, 2011). These points are critical enough to state again and should dictate marketers’ focus.
Now that we have examined the consumer landscape and behaviour of the current world, let us look at specific situations to apply it. If a company and brand and getting consistent positive feedback, they of course should continue monitoring and engaging their consumers. However, let’s look at the companies that are consistently receiving negative feedback, is it possible to counteract the effects of the social media world and empowered consumer when a company is known to be negative in a consumers mind?
There are of course, many companies that could fit into this profile and be examined. For the scope of this blog post, only one will be looked at in depth, Comcast Cable. Comcast Cable Company is a company operating in the United States offering cable TV, internet, and phone services. They are the largest broadcasting and cable company in the world based on revenue (Comcast.com, 2015). With a company so large and profitable, one would assume that they are this way because they are a good company that consumers rely on and like. This is not the case. A simple google search of Comcast yields not only basic consumer information, but an endless supply of negative stories and complaints against the company.
Furthermore, the majority of these stories are not of a bad product, but of bad customer service. In a world with an empowered consumer base with access to social media platforms, these bad customer service instances no longer just affect the consumer itself, it is now global information. In fact, the issue is so widespread and so well known that Comcast has been officially voted the worst company in America, both in 2010 and again in 2014 (Jeffries, 2014). Let that sink in. The Worst Company in America is also the largest broadcasting and cable company in the world.
Does this mean that all of this consumer empowerment that has been discussed not have an impact? The short answer is no. There are many reasons that Comcast still remains on top, maybe sheer size, lack of competition for the consumers to switch too, or maybe even it is related to them offering a product that works.
I would like to offer another possibility, simply that the level of press and discussion via social media of the bad customer service has greatly reduced the expectations of the consumer. While the consumer is empowered to speak of the awful service, it allows for other in the community to expect this from the company. In a way, this brand has been built up on the expectation of being difficult to deal with. When a consumer experiences this first hand, it is less shocking since it was expected. The ability of the empowered consumer has led to a scenario where the consumers are spreading the word for Comcast that their customer service department is lacking in the basics that are normally expected of the customer service sector. If consumers expect it, they seem to accept it more willingly. Ironically, the empowerment and ability that social media has given consumers has allowed for lowering of expectations.
Can this work long term? No, I do not think so. While the bad service of Comcast is somewhat of a running punchline, it is not sustainable long term. It has opened the door for competitors to enter and offer a simple thing that Comcast has not yet. Of course, Comcast does often interject in conversations in the media and social media platforms apologizing for poor service, but until the service changes this interjection is not viewed as anything meaningful.
In today’s world, consumers hold the power. Not only do they have the power to choose for themselves which companies to use, but they also have endless platforms to share their opinions and experiences, essentially building the brand around the consumer opinions, not the company’s brand plan. Singh and Sonnenburg (2012) offer an accurate metaphor; equating branding to storytelling, where the consumer has previously been a passive listener, now they are active participants in the story. Brand managers and marketers need to confront this head on and integrate brand management and marketing in a cooperation with consumers and the social media platforms that these consumer conversations are happening in. Negatives are always amplified and magnified in these consumer forums, so companies struggling in any aspect needs to use these consumer driven conversations to improve their flaws. In the instance of a bad company, it may be sustainable for a while, but over time, consumers will inevitably move on, most likely to competitors that they have had recommended via other consumers in these online social media conversations.
Comcast. (2015). None. Available: http://www.comcast.com/. Last accessed 16 Feb 2015.
Deighton, J. and Kornfeld, L. (2009), “Interactivity's Unanticipated Consequences for Marketers and Marketing”, Journal of Interactive Marketing, 23, p. 4-10.
Hanna, R., Rohm, A. and Crittenden, V. (2011), “We’re all connected: the power of the social media ecosystem”, Business Horizons, 54, 265-273.
Jefferies, A. (2014). The Worst Company in America. Available: http://www.theverge.com/2014/8/19/6004131/comcast-the-worst-company-in-america. Last accessed 16 Feb 2015.
Singh, S. & S. Sonnenburg (2012), Brand Performances in Social Media”, Journal of Interactive Marketing 26, 189–197.
Thorsten, H.-T., Hofacker, C.F. & Bloching, B. (2013), “Marketing the Pinball Way: Understanding How Social Media Change the Generation of Value for Consumers and Companies”, Journal of Interactive Marketing, 27, 237-241.
Wind, Y.J. (2008), “A plan to invent the marketing we need today”, MIT Sloan Management Review, 49(4).