Empowered Consumers Online – Can Companies Control Their Brands?

Written by: Sofia Prior




The development of technology has resulted in an increased use of Internet and social media (Wind, 2008). Online channels of communication allow consumers to express their opinions of brands and reach out to a great amount of people (Duffy & Tarnovskaya 2016b). Consumers have gained power, which companies need to understand and adapt to when marketing. Empowered consumers have become co-creators, co-producers and co-marketers (Wind, 2008). The new way of marketing has raised the question of how much companies can control their brands today? The company Fjällräven is presented as an example of how empowered consumers can change the image of a brand. The brand Fjällräven is perceived differently among consumers from how the company communicates it (Näslund, 2013). This highlights the importance for companies to adapt to the new trends and rules of marketing. 

Marketing 2.0

The development of technology has moved forward in a rapid speed, which has resulted in many new channels of communication (Wind, 2008). The new channels of communication have made it possible for people all around the world to be available online anytime and anywhere. Furthermore the evolution of Internet from 1.0 to 2.0 has change the way people interact with each other and with companies. Consumers no longer contact the companies, but use the Internet to search for information (Duffy & Tarnovskaya 2016a). Today the Internet and social media have an entirely different meaning within marketing, compared to the early 21th century. The previous marketing rules, roles and relationships have changed dramatically. The major change is the relationships between consumers and companies, with a power shift to the consumers’ advantage (Wind, 2008). Power has been defined as “the asymmetric ability to control people or valued recourses in online social relations” (Labrecque, vor dem Esche, Mathwick, Novack & Hofacker, 2013). It is no longer the marketers who possess the power, rather than the individuals and communities who are active online by creating, sharing and consuming blogs, tweets, Facebook, entries movies, pictures and so on (Kietzmann, Hermkens, McCarthy & Silvestre, 2011). Through these platforms individuals can share brand and product experiences and create positive or negative word of mouth in large scale in a short time (Duffy & Tarnovskaya 2016b). The social media landscape offers ubiquitous connectivity, anyone can create content and reach out to anyone willing to listen (Labrecque et al. 2013). Thus companies cannot control how their brands are exposed on the Internet. Social media participants with relevant content and sufficient reach can be very influential (Labrecque et al. 2013). With empowered consumers, brands are not just a result of companies’ work, rather a co-creation of the consumers (Kietzmann et al. 2011). 

Traditional marketing has been resembled to the linear and one-directional sport bowling. The ball represents the marketing instruments, with which the marketers reach and influence the consumers, the pins. The bowling alley represents mass media, which function as mediators for marketing content. It is important that the companies attend these carefully because they can also influence the effectiveness of marketing actions. However marketing in social media environment is better resembled as a chaotic and interactive game of pinball. The various targets of the pinball machine, bumpers, kickers and slingshots, represent the consumers, which the companies try to reach using the marketing instruments, the balls, while they need to keep the ball alive for as long as possible (Thurau, Hofacker & Bloching, 2013). The consequences of the shift from bowling to pinball are increased active participation and networked interconnectedness, which lead to consumer power. Additionally the community-based power can even seize the initiative in the game, meaning customers can be in charge of the relationship (Duffy & Tarnovskaya 2016a). 

Empowered consumers are not only spreading positive word of mouth, they are also sharing negative experiences online. Since companies cannot control the spread of negative comments online, they need to learn how to handle the situation. If companies do not take action when facing negative comments, it can result in a crisis that threatens the brand. This demands for companies to develop a whole new defence mechanism. Companies can benefit from hiring social media managers who are capable of identifying the threat of a potential crisis and who have the ability and the resources to handle the situation of a crisis break out (Thurau et al. 2013). 

Even though social media is very powerful, many executives are unwilling or unable to develop strategies and allocate resources to engage effectively with social media. When firms do not understand the impact of social media, it results in firms frequently ignoring or mismanaging the opportunities and threats presented by consumers online (Kietzmann et al. 2011). To benefit from the current trends, the market needs to adapt to the trends and fully understand the consumers (Duffy & Tarnovskaya 2016a). To embrace the growing segment of empowered consumers and to understand how they act, demands a change of companies mental models. The division that has for a long time existed between companies and consumers can limit the effectiveness of marketing, as empowered consumers become co-creators, co-marketers and co-producers. It is crucial for marketers to embrace the fact that consumers are no longer passive recipients of marketing messages, today consumers have an active role in creating and spreading marketing messages (Wind, 2008). Companies need to balance the consumer brand engagement with the companies’ interests when they together develop the brand story (Thurau et al. 2013). 

Empowered Consumers’ Impact on Fjällräven

The Swedish company Fjällräven was founded in 1960 (Fjällräven 2015a). Fjällrävens vision is to deliver functional, durable and timeless equipment to enable multiple activities in the nature (Fjällräven 2015b). Most people recognize Fjällräven by its famous backpack Kånken. The backpack was introduced in the market in 1978 because of the high rate of back problems among school children. Today you can see children and adults all around the world wearing the backpack with the same design as in 1978 (Fjällräven, 2015c). With three million backpacks currently spread around the world, Kånken is according to Fjällräven the most sold backpack in the world (Berge, 2009). 

Today you can find Kånken in many different contexts. The backpack is visible in fashion magazines, on fashion blogs, in trendy stores all over the world (Norberg, 2009), during fashion week (Wewer, 2009) and it can be spotted on celebrities and trendsetters such as Liv Tyler, Kristen Stewart and Zoey Deschanel (Näslund, 2013). Fashion reporters from several of the world’s most fashionable magazines gathered during the opening of a Fjällräven store in Manhattan. It is clearly that the company has drifted far away from the environment and the lifestyle that they are actually targeting (Näslund, 2013). This could be an indication of the difficulty to control the Fjällräven brand. Fjällräven would describe their customer as a person who has passed the age of 30, created life experience, an own lifestyle and a strong self-confidence. Today Fjällräven attracts many younger customers, a segment that the company has not actively tried to attract by its communication (Björklund, 2013). Since the very beginning of the company, Fjällräven have kept their vision, strategy and all along communicated and produced products for Swedish outdoor life (Näslund, 2013). Even after attracting new customers to the brand, the company has never changed their vision, they have not even changed their logotype despite numerous suggestions from different PR firms (Björklund, 2013). Therefore, the company is very surprised to be included to the trendy market (Näslund, 2013). 

Who Controls the Brand?

There is an obvious difference between Fjällrävens intended customer and the actual people consuming Fjällräven products today. The image of Fjällrävens products, are no longer consistent with Fjällrävens purpose of their products. Without any intentions or actions from Fjällräven itself, their brand has become something completely different from its origin.  This leads to the question of how much control companies have over their brands today, where Internet and social media have empowered consumers to co-create brands. 

With great access to Internet and all the different communication channels, pictures and information are spread in a high speed all over the world. Pictures of celebrities spread faster today than when gossip was limited to weekly magazines. Celebrities have the ability to increase consumers’ desire for a product, because they transfer their attributes to objects (Aureliano-Silva et al. 2015). Companies can therefore not control which attributes that are associated with their products. Celebrities who have been seen wearing Fjällräven products are not typical outdoors enthusiasts, rather celebrities associated with fashion and style. Fjällrävens products have also been seen in social media where people wear the products in different environments and for different use, than they are intended to. Without any contributions from Fjällräven the brand has become trendy, which is a great example of how consumers have become empowered and an indication of companies loosing control over their brands. 

Furthermore, as consumers spend more time on the Internet, it raises a challenge for companies. With the increasing amount of information addressing people online, the time we are willing to give people on the Internet is decreasing (Duffy & Tarnovskaya 2016b). Additionally, consumers today have greater opportunities to filter and customize the market’s messages. With services like caller-ID, TiVo, premium alternatives which exclude advertising for example Spotify, consumers can put a price on their attention (Deighton & Kornfeld, 2009). Consequently this makes it more difficult for companies to reach out to consumers with their marketing messages and present their brand as they wishes. Combining this with empowered consumers, actively co-creating brands’ image and story on social media, people may just experience a brand through others than the company. Therefore consumers may perceive a different image of the brand than the one the company is trying to communicate, which imply that the companies have today less control over their brand. With these conditions companies must address the market differently. 

Deighton & Kornfeld (2009) state that information is what machines can make or use, but only people can create meaning. The difference between information and meaning is that while information reduces complexity into smaller, more convenient pieces, meaning makes larger sense out of smaller pieces (Deighton & Kornfeld, 2009). This can be interpreted as companies cannot alone create meaning to their brand and communicate it in a one-way direction to the consumers. But if companies integrate with consumers, they can be a part of creating the meaning to their brand, together with the consumers. To do so companies need to adapt to the current consumer trends, such as anti-branding activates. Companies need to communicate in the same way as the consumers, using social media. It is important that companies pay attention to their environments to understand the conversations and other information flow that could influence the company’s current or future position in the market (Kietzmann et al. 2011). If companies are involved in what happens online they will have a better chance to lead their brand in the direction as they wish. A successful example is the company Dove’s campaign “real beauty”. The campaign resulted not only in discussion on Dove’s own blog or discussion board, but also a positive discussion about the campaign across many social media platforms (Kietzmann et al. 2011). Dove succeeded in engaging with the consumers and co-creating a meaning to their brand, which balance the consumer’s and the company’s interest. 

The shift from marketing 1.0 to 2.0 could result in companies having less control over their brands. But if companies adapt to the new trends and rules of marketing, they can together with the consumers co-create brands and gain more control over their brands. 












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