“On Brand” or “Not on Brand”: Does the Digital Age call for a New Brand Management?

Written by: Jamie-Lee Lammers



Currently, I follow VW’s pitch for one of the biggest media budgets in the world of 2.5 billion dollar. However, it is not the well-known rivalry of VW’s long-standing partner agency Mediacom with other well-established players that draws my attention to the crisis-stricken company. Rather VW’s unconventional decision to allocate part of the gigantic media budget to a new player on stage causes a sensation like a Shakespeare drama: Rumour has it, that the media platform Blackwood Seven will receive a double-digit amount into the million (http://www.wuv.de/agenturen/vw_pitch_erste_entscheidung_gegen_mediacom) from the budget (Kalka, 2016).  

While VW plays this decision down as a pilot project, the media industry is in uproar. VW’s choice addresses a much more fundamental question for marketers and agencies around the world: 

What is a successful driver for branded communication to engage with consumers in the digital age? 

  • Can a brand’s identity remain a potent driver of meaningful communication to engage with your customers in the digital world? 
  • Or do you have to develop more flexible solutions (media platform management) in engaging with customers digitally? 

As Fournier and Avery (2011) point out, branding has always been a strategic activity. Careful analysis and planning marked this discipline. However, the Internet might just change this approach forcing brands to engage in “operational excellence” (p.204) instead. Let’s see if the digital age makes strategic branding obsolete and if VW is onto something when turning away from long-term brand agencies. 

How It Used to Be: Your Brand Identity Drives Your Communication

Communication is important, not only in marriage, but especially for brands. Traditional brand management assumes that successful communication is shaped by your brand identity. For instance, Urde and Greyser (2014) found that a brand’s identity shapes how and what the brand communicates, which in turn shapes people’s opinion about the brand. 


It is like you and me: My personality shapes what and how I express myself, which in turn influences what you think of me. Depending on this reputation you are more or less inclined to engage with me (Roper & Fill, 2012), especially on the Internet, where reputation becomes a currency (Fournier & Avery, 2011). Thus, my communication affects how much we interact with each other. And for brands, this engagement means how loyal people are and how much they are buying from me. 

The Problem with Engagement via Branded Communication in the Digital World

However, in today’s online environment it is not enough to simply communicate anything related to your brand. The Web 2.0 aggravating how brands can engage with their customers via branded communication. 

  • Brands are natural outsiders in the Web 2.0 as the web is made for people and not for brands. Within these intimate conversations between people, brands often appear as unauthentic and out of place (Fournier & Avery, 2011). 
  • To make things worse, brands lose power on the web (Christodoulides, 2009). In a space, in which content is created by people, consumers tend to ignore branded content on social media (Fournier & Avery, 2011). Thus companies lose the control over the reach of their communication efforts. However, if content is branded content is created, the marketer have long lost the role of main other in their brand stories (Gensler et al, 2013). It is the people who tell brand stories today competing with branded content. 
  • Brands face authoritative critiques on the web while negative critique spreads much faster on the web than positive silent approval. In addition, brands often become victims of parody (Fournier & Avery, 2011). While brands also receive positive feedback in the form of likes and shares as silent approval, studies found that consumers shy away from actively sharing and creating branded content (Pereira et al, 2014).

“Not on Brand” | Consumer Culture as Driver for Branded Communication & Engagement

As Fournier and Avery (2011) pointed out, one way to react to these challenges is a more flexible approach to branded communication and thus, brand building. 

EDEKA is a popular German supermarket chain that substantially endorsed its company’s reputation with its recent branded communication and achieved high brand engagement on social media. These two campaigns are an example of branded communication, which moved away from the brand identity of the company and instead tapped into popular aspects of consumer culture. 


EDEKA’s viral marketing campaign “Supergeil” (translating into “super wicked”) reached 15,907,209 views on YouTube until today. Moreover, it created 5,000 mentions of the #supergeil on Twitter and one million on Google in the first three days after the launch of the communication campaign. (Schwerthelm, 2014) Most importantly, this communication helped to sustainably build the supermarket’s brand. For instance, it helped the brand to retain the 27th position in Interbrand’s Best German Brands ranking by receiving two AME awards. (Interbrand, 2015) 

The company continued its communication success by breaking through the conventional Christmas holiday communication with this commercial: 


This campaign reached even more views 46,853,176 and introduced yet again a popular hashtag #heimkommen (#cominghome). 

  1. The Digital world Favours Humour

In a study of Scarpi (2012) on online purchase behaviour, it was found that hedonism in form of fun results in a higher number of items purchased than utilitarian drivers. Thus, in the online environment in which the amount of content is endless, fun is a fast way to engage with consumers. The first commercial emphasise EDEKA’s re-occurring concept of self-humour, which builds the basis strategic frame for the company’s brand communication. This enables EDEKA to utilize a fundamental driver of creating attention online. 

  1. The Digital World Favours Authenticity

The advertising agency Jung von Matt proved once again their sense for the pulse of current culture. By co-creating this brand communication with a Friedrich Liechtenstein, they tap into current social media hype around the icon and “flaneur” from Berlin. In this way, the brand communication gains resonance in the online community and the company embeds itself naturally in the social media context (Fournier and Avery, 2011). This facilitates the conversation about the brand online, which is a crucial task in online communication (Christondouldes, 2009). Tapping into this source of authenticity and creating a favourable halo-effect for the brand is only possible for EDEKA, because the company uses the broad brand frame of humour. Other elements of the brand’s identity fade from the spotlight next to the cultural icon of Liechtenstein. 

  1. The Digital World Favours Common Stories  

While not being on-brand, the agency Jung von Matt spotted and used the momentum of yet another consumer sentiment by creating this emotional story. While it addresses a prominent sentiment of society around the world during Christmas time and refraining from commercializing this societal sentiment, EDEKA managed to differentiate itself and resonate with consumers all over the world (Fournier & Avery, 2011). This time not even the brand frame of humour dictates the brand communication. EDEKA again appears as “short-term brand” and is elevated by current cultural communication. 

What does this mean for my brand strategy? 

EDEKA’s example highlights how a “short-term brand” can generate successful brand engagement via branded communication. By abandoning the brand’s own identity as a driver for branded communication, the company is more flexible and able to associate its brand with authentic and relevant cultural topics instead. Fournier and Avery describe this strategy as “Playing their Game”. By “being where the action is on social media” the EDEKA creates a resonance in the highly critical landscape of social media leading to successful brand engagement. This strategy addresses the power shift in the Web 2.0 as it marks a mind-shift change: In order to engage successfully online, the brand identity is not the driving source for content. Thus, the communication campaigns are rather a result of serendipity rather than strategic planning based on thorough data collection. The focus lies on an engaging content and a scheme to go viral.  Thus, as Fournier and Avery (2011) point out, brand building in this case resembles much more PR disciplines by trying to create a buzz around the EDEKA brand. 

“On Brand” | Brand Identity as Driver for Communication to a Brand Culture

So, does this mean that traditional strategic approaches to brand communication will cease to lead to brand engagement on social media? Contrary to Fournier and Avery (2011) other scholars, such as Barwise and Meeham (2010) claim that the old rules of branding still apply in the digital context. They claim the key to success, especially on social media is returning to the basics and delivering on a compelling brand promise. 

The make up brand Maybelline successfully it’s brand identity by engaging with its customers on social media during the Mercedes Benz Fashion Week in Berlin (http://www.lead-digital.de/aktuell/social_media/maybellines_echtzeit_kampagne_zur_fashion_week_was_sich_daraus_lernen_laesst). Via the hashtag #MNYmakeithappen the company provided branded content and live streams from the fashion week in front of and behind the scenes. This strategically planned communication resulted in a 63% increase of Twitter followers, the account was mentioned 4 times as much and the interaction rate increased in 5.6 impressions to an average of 7.1% (while the benchmark in Germany is 1.3%). Due to strategic planning of the content agency Content Cube and the media agency L’Équipe L’Oréal, Maybelline was able to sustain the mentioning of the company’s on social media even after the campaign was terminated (Mattgay, 2016). 


1. The Digital World Favours Facilitated Interaction

As Deighton and Kornfeld (2009) point out the most successful social media are those enabling cultural exchange. Companies contribute cultural products and content and compete in a buzz market with other firms. In this highly competitive environment, customers pass on the brand communication as they experience it as something natural, novel and state-of-the-art. By providing unique and targeted branded content for a specific cultural group, Maybelline was able to facilitate the interaction of its customers by creating culturally resonating content and fulfil the customers’ need for belonging (Fournier & Avery, 2011). With its mix of purely branded, co-created and customer-generated content, Maybelline helped to create collective sense-making of a cultural event that is valuable for its audience. 

2. The Digital World Favours Exclusive Communities and Identities  

Apart from helping to connect with other, Deighton and Kornfeld (2009) also claim social media can help to connect to one’s self, that is, to build personal identity. In this social exchange, brands help to form instrumental communities for customers. Stefan Heidreich, CEO of Maybelline, claims with this communication effort the company wanted to be closer to their customers and enable them to take part in this exclusive event (Mattgay, 2016). Thus, engaging with the hashtag and the brand’s exclusive content, consumers are able to create “a story about me” (Salzer-Mörling, 2010, p.251). In addition, 90% of the interaction online is watching others being communal (Nielson, 2006). Maybelline provides the consumer with a kaleidoscope of branded and co-created content enabling their consumers to tap into the expressive power of the brand and help them construct their identity (Salzer-Mörling, 2010). 

What does this mean for my brand strategy?

Maybelline showed how to engage with customers via branded communication by leveraging your brand’s identity. The brand’s identity serves as a guide for Maybelline’s branded communication by determining the content, the partners and the purpose of the digital communication campaign. In addition, the brand serves as anchor for identity building of their brand’s customers.


The digital age poses novel challenges for brand management. While these challenges push brand management to become more flexible, the brand identity as driver for meaningful communication did not become obsolete. Strategically planned “on-brand” communication can lead to engagement, if it is genuine and enables the brand’s customers in their identity building or social sense making. On the other extreme it is also possible for brands be “not on brand” and thus to prosper from tapping into the creative power of consumer culture and becoming a “short-term brand”. 

So, in conclusion, VW is not crazy to tap into the minds of its stakeholders by monitoring social media and traditional brand agencies have to do the same. 












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