Have brands gone from party crashers to party hosts? The rise of the empowered consumer and the invitation to co-create branded content

Written by Anonymous

From a world where the brand sets the agenda, to a world where consumers decide if and when brands are invited in” (Fournier and Avery, 2011, p. 206)

Only two decades ago, branded messages was created and distributed on a one-to-many basis: brands spoke in monologues to the masses. Much has changed with the rise of social media, and conversations between brands and consumers are now made more democratically. This post will shine light on how brands and brand management have adapted to the connected and empowered consumers, and gone from uninvited in the people-to-people interaction to an initiator of engagement. Two brands, LEGO and Coca-Cola, will illustrate different approaches to co-creation of branded content, where brands use the power of the audience and invite them to the party and embrace the dual authorship of co-created content. 

Web 2.0, Social Media and the communication shift 

The term Web 2.0 started to be used over a decade ago, along with the realisation that online content could be created and shared by the collective (Kaplan and Haenlein, 2010). That said, Web 2.0 enabled for user generated content (UGC), and the emergence of social media platforms. Social media is an umbrella terms for interactive platforms where individuals are in control of the content, such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Tumblr (Hanna, Rohm and Crittenden, 2011). This development has led to a large shift in how conversations takes place, and has generated a new approach to how both people and corporations communicate and interact with each other (Kaplan and Haenlein, 2010). 

We are all authors and publishers in the age of eWOM

Today’s modern and constantly connected consumer is skilled in navigating media messages, and has greater control over own media exposure, which naturally has affected the marketing ecosystem in many ways (Hanna, Rohm and Crittenden, 2011). The communication flow has gone from monologue to dialogue, and created a more democratic media landscape of multiple senders and receivers of content (Fournier and Avery, 2011). Electronic Word-Of-Mouse (eWOM) refers to the process of how digital content can be shared among people inside and outside one’s network, and has gained completely new status in the age of computer-mediated conversation exchange (King, Racherla and Bush, 2014). Now when everyone is an author and publisher, content can gain viral spread at high speed, which has shifted the power dynamics between brands and consumers (Labrecque, vor dem Esche, Mathwick, Novak and Hofacker, 2013). 

Power to the people – We are shaping brand perceptions 

This new media landscape has given birth to a tech savvy consumer who masters all tools needed to get involved in the formation of branded content, both by disrupting and altering brand initiated content, but also to create their own. A result, s/he has acquired an empowered position in the media landscape and this has forced brand managers to rethink their traditional processes, as the audience has gone from passive bystanders to active authors of branded content (Singh and Sonnenburg, 2012). Looking back, brand management used to be a procedure of managing branded content and with the aim to form certain perceptions in the market, but social media has disrupted the branding process in the sense that it is no longer the brands alone that shape perception. Instead, consumers have gained increased influence in shaping others’ opinions, and social media is said to have been “reconstituting branding” (Fournier and Avery, 2011, p. 206). 

The pinball game – the age of the empowered consumer

Henning-Thurau, Hofacker and Bloching (2013) uses interesting metaphors when discussing what social media has brought to the branding landscape by comparing the traditional versus modern environment with bowling versus pinball. In the traditional media environment, brands projected and reinforced messages towards consumers like a bowling ball, whereas today’s digital environment enables for communication to and from all directions, like in pinball. Brand managers can no longer fully manage the branded messages, nor the routes of the messages (Henning-Thurau, Hofacker and Bloching, 2013). Instead, consumers can modify the original meanings of communication, which places them in a new and empowered position (Wind, 2008). They are also the ones who control the reach of messages, and decide whether content is worth sharing or otherwise – ignoring it (Fournier and Avery, 2011). Gone is the time when brands were fully controlled and owned by companies, this is the age of the empowered consumer (Gensler, Völckner, Lui-Tompkins and Wiertz, 2013; Labrecque et al., 2013). 

Gaining consumer resonance

Drawing on what has been mentioned so far, social media has open up to a new form of intimacy between brands and consumers, and this has led to major opportunities for creating and nurturing dialogues, relationships and resonance (Peters, Chen, Kaplan, Ogibeni and Pauwels, 2013). Also, a major difference between traditional and new media is the ability to combine reach and consumer engagement on the social platforms, and to move away from just awareness and instead towards loyalty, engagement and advocacy too (Hanna, Rohm and Crittenden, 2011). This can in turn generate favourable eWOM, and a study by Nielsen Group show that 92% of consumers trust brand recommendations from family and friends in their network, rather than company initiated marketing (in Clancy and Paquette, 2012, p. 3). What this indicates is that if Emma, for example, shares her brand stories and experiences online, it simplifies other peoples’ navigation through the media clutter. 

Gaining consumer resonance…. is to lose control

A paradox here, which has been touched upon already, is that gaining resonance with consumers also means losing control. What academics like Christodoulides (2009) and Sing and Sonnenburg (2012) have highlighted, is that brands and branded messages no longer can be brand controlled; the branding process takes place on collaborative and participatory basis and this also makes the environment highly unpredictable from a managerial perspective. Just as positive content can go viral, so can also negative. Brands are easy targets for unfavourable eWOM and negative sentiment, and conversations can always take a negative turn, and become what Peters et al. (2013) calls “shitstorms”. But, the democratic nature should still be celebrated. Christodoulides (2009) refers to the traditional brand manager as “narcissistic”, as a heavy focus used to be on telling the audience how amazing the brand is, and project a specific image of it. This is definitely a contrast to the collaborative branding process we see today. Therefore, it is only reasonable that brand managers are facing new types of difficulties today, and the brand management process today also involves brand protection and risk and reputation management (Fournier and Avery, 2011). 

Consumer engagement cannot be bought – it must be earned

By elaborating on the changed environment for the marketing and brand management discipline, we see that it is less about controlling and more about trying to fit in with the consumers, which Deightona & Kornfield (2009) agrees on. People are parts of the brands, and which companies must adjust their strategies to. This used to be a struggle for many brands, as a major obstacle is that consumers do not invite brands into their social lives with open arms; in fact, brands are not always welcome at all. Social media was created for people to interact with people, and brands must therefore find a way to enter conversations smartly  (Fournier and Avery, 2011; Piskorski, 2011). As Fournier and Avery underline, “brands are uninvited crashers to the Web 2.0 party” (p. 193), and this places high demands on how brands approach the their audience. Consumer engagement cannot be bought – it must be earned. Therefore, content quality and responsiveness from brands are important factors to succeed in being accepted by the public, and ultimately gain supporters that spread favourable eWOM. In this respect, engagement level of fans is of higher importance than the number of fans. And essentially, social media is not first hand about increasing sales anyway, but to gain insights (Barwise and Meehan, 2010). Just consider the great access to consumer data consumers have today, compared to a decade ago! 

Embracing the age of co-creation

We can conclude that we are living in the age of consumer empowerment and shared authorship of branded communication, and that co-creation of content is here to stay. Prahalad and Ramaswamy (in eYeka, 2012, p. 4) define co-creation as “an active, creative and social process based on collaboration between producers and users, initiated by the firm to create value for the user”. That said, value is not created for the consumers, but with them. The new media climate must be accepted and adjusted to by revising strategies to implement a social media strategy (Piskorski, 2011). Losing control of the brand means that control is diverted to other players, regardless of brands’ approval. Therefore, it is strongly suggested that the modern, co-creating consumer should be embraced and invited the consumers to the “Web 2.0 party” that Fournier and Avery (2011) talk about. 

A brand is no longer what we tell the consumer it is – it is what consumers tell each other it is” (Cook in Gensler et al., 2013, p. 242). 

As discussed in the previous post, social media has facilitated for eWOM, which has empowered consumers to share branded content on social platforms. The age of consumer empowerment is a fact, and we know it. The quote above emphasise how the power to share brand stories is in the hands of the consumer and how the authorship of branded communication is a co-creation process by brands and consumers. 

The fan-tastic social web 

One of the biggest benefits brought by the social media shift is the ability to increase brand awareness and advocacy among people (Hanna, Rohm and Crittenden, 2011). The previous post discussed how an aim for companies for fans and consumers share favourable brand stories and eWOM through their networks. Worth mentioning is that the term “fan” is sometimes used interchangeably with advocates and ambassadors, but the two latter mainly deal with paid brand referrals. This post, however, aims at the voluntary act of sharing favourable brand content based on positive brand experiences (Gallup, 2014). If achieved, this can have high payoff potential, as referrals from friends and family is seen as far more reliable than brand initiated marketing efforts, as mentioned in the previous post (Nielsen, in Clancy and Paquette, 2012). As the modern consumer is demanding, a key to achieve loyal fans lie in how brands approach them – their approach should be genuine and personal, and content should be engaging, transparent, relevant and, of course, packaged in a sharable and likable way (Gallup, 2014).

How LEGO and Coca-Cola embraces co-creation

Let us have a look at how companies invite consumers to co-create and share content, to make the discussed theory more comprehensible. LEGO is illustrated as the main example, and Coca-Cola is briefly presented as another brand that represent a different angle of the co-creation spectrum. 


LEGO, the world famous toy manufacturer, has adapted a very customer-centric approach and the brand’s DNA fully embraces co-creation and open innovation. Apart from actively engaging with their fans and consumers on several social media platforms, a major tool is LEGO Ideas. This is a platform where fans are invited to upload their own product ideas for new LEGO sets, and then share the product suggestion on social platforms and gain support from others. Once 10.000 supporters are reached, the board of LEGO will review the product idea and decide whether to invest in the suggested LEGO set and launch it. If successful, the creator is both awarded with royalties from the sales, and by recognition as creator (LEGO, n.d). 

To actively invite fans into the creative process like this is an excellent way of engaging with them, and to stimulate a sense of collective creation (Mediacom, 2012). LEGO uses a type of co-creation that starts with the end user, a process that takes on a different perspective of product development compared company initiated innovation (eYeka, 2012). An interesting point here is that the company almost faced bankruptcy in 2004 – just before the social media boom – but now has climbed up to a safe position again, by diverting creative control to fans to better meet consumer demands (Feloni, 2014). And what is a better approach to meeting consumer demands and to use consumer insights for enhanced brand experiences, than to invite them to create the products they desire? Adapting this consumer-rooted approach is a way of constantly responding to the dynamics of the market, and also what may be a key factor for continuing success in the digital age. One can speculate and say that LEGO has had great help from embracing social media and the new opportunities brought by the empowered consumers. 

What we see it that LEGO uses co-creation tactics that amplifies sharing of brand experiences and brand stories, as well as product development. Now, let us look at Coca-Cola to put this into context by contrasting with another approach to co-creation of branded content. 

Coca-Cola – #ShareACoke 

Coca-Cola’s #ShareACoke campaign has been running for several years now, and centres on consumers share a Coke with their name on the bottle with their friends. Not only physically, but also to use the campaign dedicated hashtag to share images on social platforms. This is an example of smart content marketing that has gained huge traction on social channels, and the campaign is very successful with very little negative sentiment (Tadena, 2014). It is also is a good example of when content that from the start is brand initiated takes off on its own, to spark big volumes of fan interaction, ultimately without the brand itself as main trigger. This campaign highly emphasise the viral power of eWOM and consumer engagement. It also stands as a contrast to the LEGO example, as it illustrates a different type of co-creation, focused on content rather than products. 

What can we learn from these two examples? 

To start with, there are similarities in terms of being globally well-liked brands that both offer personalisation of their products. They also work actively to engage their fans, but the outcome play out differently; Coca-Cola uses social media with an aim to share brand stories via their fans, but does not open the doors for co-creating products in the way that LEGO does. Coca-Cola rather relies on the content being very sharable, whereas LEGO’s approach in based on a deeper engagement and commitment from both brand and consumer. However, LEGO has the type of product that well enables for collaborations, whereas Coca-Cola rather uses social media and the empowered consumer to achieve brand awareness. This is indeed a difference worth acknowledging, but again, both brands rely on the power of the consumer and his/her social network and eWOM. From the consumer’s perspective, this type of brand engagement may trigger a sense of closeness to the brands, and in that sense there are mutual benefits to gain. 

Arising criticism: consumers as workers 

The examples of LEGO and Coca-Cola shine light on the positive and favourable aspects of the co-creation process. Yet, the coin is two-sided, and the debate about whether this type of co-creation is a free-ride process from the brand’s side, to use consumers as labour, is becoming relevant. It can indeed be questionable whether brands capitalise on ideas generated by the social collective, and the limited degree to which consumers are rewarded. For example, Cova and Dalli (2009) mention that the aspect of exploitation of consumers as work force is something brands must figure out how to avoid. While being outside the scope of this post, it is well worth to bare this criticism in mind, and it can be seen as likely to gain further interest in the coming time. 

Conclusion: Towards a future of embracing the collaborative branding process

These posts have looked at how social media has led to a shift of power from brands to consumers and thereby created a more democratic media and branding landscape. Branding activities today are collaborative processes, which has presented both difficulties and advantages for brand managers. One effect is the lack of control over the branding process, as well as the question whether brands exploit consumers by using them as workers. What here has been argued is that brands have a lot to win by embracing the connected social collective. By learning how to engage with consumers in an environment that was created for people-to-people interaction, many modern brands, such as LEGO and Coca-Cola, have embraced the co-creation of branded content as tools for success. That said, we have seen that brands that utilise the power of social media and the power of the consumer can go from party crashers to party hosts by inviting consumers in. Those are the brands that truly see the benefits brought by Web 2.0 and welcome the dual authorship of the branding procedures rather than fearing them. 

Managerial implications 

From a managerial perspective, some of the key recommendations to embrace the empowered consumers and co-creation abilities are the following:

  • Fully understand social media, and fully understand your consumers
  • Welcome the collaboration process and realise the potential 
  • Value the consumers – their engagement is earned, not bought

Other topics to look into

These blog posts only taps into a small part of how social media has affected brands and consumers. Other interesting topics, related to what has been discussed, is for example the following: 

  • Brands as “free riders” and exploit the committed fans and their willingness to share 
  • Consumer’s motivation to engage in co-creation processes 
  • Brand ownership in the social media era, and who actually is the brand owner - companies or consumers - in the age where the branding activities are collaborative



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