Are Brands Becoming our Friends? The Web 2.0 Consumer-brand Relationship

Written by Anonymous

In the world of Web 2.0, “liking,” “following” and “friending” one another online dictates social interactions and connections. An immense number of individuals are using social media as one of their main platforms for communication. As a result, the ways in which consumers interact with one another are drastically changing. Naturally, such a development in communication is in turn affecting the ways consumers interact with companies. If “friending” someone online has become a communicative norm, it seems rather evident that brands will engage with consumers in a similar way in the hopes of remaining relevant. 

With the age of the digital revolution, came the necessity of brands existence on the web. Online company websites and/or stores are a standard in society; however, in the world of Web 2.0 much more is required from a brand than an online store location (Kapferer, 2012). Web 2.0 challenges companies to go beyond their sales role to remain competitive in a time where competition lays merely a click away. Web 2.0 is about interaction, peer-to-peer communication; it is about a dialogue. That being said, it can be observed that brands and their brand content need to now transcend beyond a selling focus, and connect with their consumers (Kapferer, 2012,p.142). This change in communication has brought to surface the importance of interactivity, sincerity, like-mindedness and connectedness. The qualities that an individual may have once sought from a friend may now be equally expected and demanded from a company. 

That being said, the social phenomenon of befriending and interacting with one another through social media may be contributing to brands behaving more like people rather than companies (Forbes, 2012). As companies grow their online presence, adapt their content, become more engaging and tangible, are they on the path to becoming friends with their consumers?

Web 2.0: The transformation of marketing 

A family huddled around a single TV set after dinner or a routine read through the morning paper were some of the few mediums through which marketers once reached their consumers. Prior to the Internet, and more specifically, prior to the world of Web 2.0, marketing methods seemed to be rather uncomplicated. Traditional marketing was based on a push marketing approach and was heavily reliant on advertisements through mediums such as newspapers, magazines, radio and TV (Talpau, 2014). The aim was to push a message to the targeted public and reach as many individuals as possible (Hanna, Rohm, & Crittenden, 2011; Talpau, 2012). Henning-Thurau, Hofacker & Bloching (2013) used the metaphor of bowling to grasp such an approach, with the passive consumers being the pins, the message taking the position of the ball, and the alley, the mass media, serving as merely the medium used to relay the marketing content. This concept clearly captures the extent to which traditional marketing took a one-way communication approach (Henning-Thurau et al. 2013). 

The introduction of the web added a new medium by which marketers could advertise on; however, it was the introduction of social media that resulted in the highly interactive world of Web 2.0. Business models and the buyer-seller relationship dramatically began to change, or as Henning-Thurau et al. (2013) put it, social media changed the game of marketing from a linear one of bowling, to a highly active one of pinball.  Social media resulted in the consumer gaining an immense level of power, as they were now able to receive the message and participate in various dialogues (Henning-Thurau et al. 2013; Talpau, 2012). An active communication process began to take place and information was readily available for a consumer to obtain, bringing to fruition the need for pull marketing (Talpau, 2012). The consumer transitioned from a “passive bystander” to an “active hunter,” which in turn led to the possibility of companies reaching a degree of closeness, which they did not have before (Hanna et al. 2011, p. 267). Such closeness arguably takes away the out-of-reach qualities once possessed by the corporate world, in turn providing consumers with a sense of connection to corporations.

Engagement: interaction with a brand, interaction with a friend

The importance of branding, creating an identity for a company, has grown to be greater prioritized over time (Kapferer, 2012). Simultaneously, as the Internet developed to transform the ways in which individuals interact, companies began to alter the ways they engage with their consumers. Consumers began using social media, in particular social networks, to engage with company brands (Hanna et al. 2011; Kabadayi & Price, 2014). Such platforms provided companies with the opportunity to integrate intimacy and engagement into their marketing strategy with the goal of creating an experience for the consumer (Hanna et al. 2011). 

In order for a company to gain consumer loyalty, it is important for consumers to engage with its brand (Kapferer, 2012). Engagement takes interaction a step further than an arbitrary purchase and can in turn fuel authentic brand loyalty and added value (Kabadayi & Price, 2014; Kapferer 2012). Furthermore, engagement requires a level of “personal involvement with a brand,” causing the individual to feel close to the brand, altering their perception of proximity (Kapferer, 2012, p. 100). The experience by which engagement occurs can vary anywhere from the physical experience of using the product or service, to the interaction one may have with a brand through their Facebook page. However, it is social networking sites that have strengthened opportunities for experiential involvement through company engagement (Hanna et al. 2011; Kapferer 2012).

The alteration in level of intimacy can arguably be the first step in a brand appearing more tangible, more friend-like. Just as individuals may influence and collaborate with one another (e.g. their friends), social media has provided a means for them to do so with brands. The web allows for participation and for consumers to be creative and generate content of their own (Berthon, Pitt, Plangger, & Shapiro, 2012). Companies often encourage this process by communicating less about their product and more about topics that contribute to their brand identity. 

Barwise & Meehan (2010) provide an example of Procter & Gamble’s BeingGirl use of an online presence to connect with consumers. They formed a platform for preteen-girls to discuss issues ranging from hygiene to various girl talk. Other companies, such as Free People take a similar route, using blogs to post about topics that are relevant to the brand image. They engage with their fans and do so not on the basis of their product, but through an authentic experience. Though Free People is a clothing company, their blog provides a variety of engaging topics such as beauty, DIY projects, and music tips. The tone of the voice used, to the way the photos are edited are indicative of the brand’s bohemian identity; however, the brand’s products are relatively absent. Fans can comment on the blog posts and engage with the company, sharing both their thoughts and ideas (, 2015). The authenticity factor provided by such engagement-based sites contributes to their success (Barwise & Meehan, 2010). The brand may appear more sincere and trustworthy-- qualities that resemble that of a friend rather than a corporate persuasion tactic.    

Like-mindedness & Connectedness: Commonality with a brand, commonality with a friend

It can be said that connecting through social media meets individuals’ needs to belong and to share their “norms, values and interests,” in turn allowing them to obtain a feeling of community through social connectedness (Laroche, Habibi, Richard, & Sankaranarayanan, 2012, p. 1756). A community, whether physical or virtual, is centered around a group of people with similar “goals,” ideals and likings” (Kapferer, 2012, p. 132). Individuals want to feel accepted and as if they are a part of something. Web 2.0 provides this sense of belonging through online communities (Fournier & Avery, 2011). As mentioned before, brand loyalty is indicative of a successful brand and through engagement, brands are able to create emotional attachments with their consumers. One of social media’s main contributions to brands has been the creation of virtual brand communities (Kapferer, 2012). In today’s society, a brand needs to form a community in order to remain relevant; it needs to have “friends” and “followers” (Kapferer, 2012, p. 11). It is important to note that a brand needs to be perceived as sincere in order to obtain a genuine brand community. It must not focus on selling a product, but rather on listening to consumers and encouraging consumer involvement (Kapferer, 2012). That once again suggests the notion that brands’ actions today may be greater centered on befriending their consumers than selling products to them.  

As communities centered around brands continuously grow, “brand friendships” will develop (Wilson & Morgan, 2011). Companies’ brands aid in a rather personalized relationship building processes through their brand identity and personification (Wilson & Morgan, 2011). Similar to a friend, individuals choose the brands that they connect with online based on their similar identities. Ashly & Tuten (2014) noted that self-expansion theory alludes to the concept that consumers communicate with brands that have coinciding identities with their own and that consumers need to feel that the relationship is not one-sided. It should be noted that similar to a friendship, an importance is placed on both commonality and interactivity (Ashley & Tuten, 2014). 

Nike is a textbook example of a brand with a strong community following that encourages the consumer experience and involvement. In particular, Nike capitalized on the digital revolution and created their Nike Digital Sport division. This community is heavily reliant on interactive products and social network engagement. Such a community enables consumers to create a closer, more intimate relationship with the brand as they engage both with like-minded consumers and the brand itself (Piskorski & Johnson, 2014). Online communities, such as Nike’s, provide a platform for brands to engage with their “friends,” fans, or “followers” on the basis of commonality. Such engagement provides a foundation for a like-minded, genuine relationship, along with the reinforcement of brand identity (Wilson & Morgan, 2011).  

Friend or Foe: Implications of the evolved consumer-brand relationship

It can be observed that social media has an “informal and personal nature,” which allows consumers to not only interact with brands in their network, but also to befriend them (Henning-Thurau et al. 2013, p. 239). Web 2.0 has brought with it the need for companies to greater distance themselves from a traditional sales-driven approach, to one that is perceived as genuine, interactive and arguably friend-like. The brands of today seem to increasingly connect with consumers on the basis of commonality rather than corporate superiority, nurturing their relationships through engagement tactics. With the consumer gaining power and companies competing with one another for their attention, brands need to connect with consumers in a way that ensures their relevancy. 

Though it does seem that brands are increasingly taking on a friend-like persona, or interacting with consumers through social media in ways that are far from traditional, the transition from company to friend may raise a number of issues. One might wonder whether consumers want brands to take on a friend-like persona and if not, how/if brands will find a genuine balance between friend and company. Also, as relationships between brands and consumers deepen to resemble a friendship, emotions will also deepen. That being said, if brands have become friends with consumers, will any act of misconduct be perceived as an act of betrayal (Wilson& Morgan, 2011)? It seems evident that in the world of Web 2.0, brand managers need to interact with their consumers on a more intimate level; however, they may want to keep the above issues in mind as they adapt their social content to greater engage and connect with their consumers.  


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