The Jemaa El-Fnaa Square in Marrakech, Morocco. A metaphor for social media marketing

Written by: Axel Wellinder



Jemaa El-Fnaa, the perfect metaphor for social media marketing

This article is about how companies better can understand the nature of social media marketing that an increasing number of brands are using (Fournier and Avery, 2011). What are the main issues that brands using social media marketing face and what are the academic recommendations? To highlight the issues related to social media marketing I use a public square metaphor.

Have you ever been to the “Jemaa El-Fnaa” public square in Marrakech, Morocco? It is a place where people meet to eat, talk and buy things from the stunning assortment of merchandise provided by countless merchants who are fighting for your attention. In a way, it is the perfect physical metaphor for social media marketing. I first stumbled across the public square metaphor in an article about internet privacy, where the author explained that, once you go online you are no longer in the privacy of your own room, but rather entering a public square. The reasoning was that, not only can you see everything online, everything you do can be seen and spread by others. 

But this paper is not about privacy issues. It is about how companies better can understand the nature of social media marketing that an increasing number of brands are using (Fournier and Avery, 2011). The public square metaphor explains social media as a public square which can be used by billions of people at any given time and offer immense possibilities for brand building, but it can also be a threat where an angry mob can be formed in a moment beating your brand to the ground if you’re not careful. 

Brand intrusion

When you first enter Jemaa El-Fnaa the assortment of products and stores is stunning. There seems to be an endless number of different carpets, jewelry, spices etc., and before you know it, half of the vacation budget has found it’s way out of your wallet. Soon you start getting weary of all the merchants offering you a “special price for you, friend”. It almost feels like they are attacking you when all you want to do is to have a look around or talk to your friend over a cup of fresh mint tea. After a while you simply start to ignore all the offers you get and avoid eye-contact with the merchants who won’t let you go on undisturbed if you as much as glance at them. 

In much the same way, consumers simply start to ignore brands that are trying to get attention when all they want to do is to see what their friends did last night (Fournier and Avery, 2011). Before social media platforms became prominent, consumers used e-mail and telephones to communicate over distances. It didn’t take long before brands started to intrude on these communication tools and ways to exclude brands from these tools started to emerge (Fournier and Avery, 2011). People started to register in databases such as the Swedish NIX-register in order to stop telemarketers from calling in the middle of dinner and e-mail companies started to offer spam-protection services (Deighton and Kornfeld, 2009). 

Unlike many of the old public squares in our cities, social media platforms where not built for commerce but rather as a way to maintain and build interpersonal relationships. According to Pereia et al (2014), the main reason people connect on social media is because they share a relationship offline. And when brands use tactics similar to traditional marketing on social media such as banners, they often display messages irrelevant to the dialogic nature of social media. They are simply part of the setting and will thus largely be ignored (Fournier and Avery, 2011). Much like billboards surrounding many public squares. Brands who use this tactic have probably missed that the relational interactivity is the main difference between social media marketing and traditional marketing (Peter et. al, 2014). 

However, 70% of the respondents in a survey said that one of the reasons they joined Facebook was to get information about new brands and products (Pereia et al, 2014). This gives hope to brands that want to use social media marketing, but they have to understand the nature of such media in order to use it in a good way.

Loss of control

With so many merchants shouting on the square, it becomes really hard to know what store you should choose when you want to buy that authentic Moroccan carpet. The solution is to ask the nice German couple sitting next to you in the restaurant where they bought theirs. If you’re lucky they know where you should go, and if you’re less lucky they’ll tell you we’re you shouldn’t go. They might start to tell you the arguments that one of the carpet merchants used, and all to often in an ironic almost parody like way. The well thought through arguments gets punctured at once and you see them in a whole other way than they were originally intended. 

In much the same way, consumers spread their versions of brand messages to friends or even strangers and we tend to listen to these versions more than the original content (Fournier and Avery, 2011). Brands have to understand this and acknowledge that they don’t have control over how messages are interpreted and spread with social media marketing. The big difference from traditional marketing is that the interpretations can be spread quickly and easily between a big number of consumers with a click of a button (Fournier and Avery, 2011). Much like the way an angry customer can get their voice heard by many in the middle of the square while the desperate merchant try to get their point through, often highly ignored compared to the angry customer. 

In the social media context, consumers listen more to the number of “likes” rather than the source of the content. The power has shifted from the content source (the brand) to the collective of consumers (Fournier and Avery, 2011). 


As mentioned in the introduction, the original intention of the public square metaphor was to acknowledge that most things you do online can be seen by others. This may even be more important for brands to understand than individuals, as the bigger you are, the more likely it is that you become subject of investigation (Fournier and Avery, 2011). In the middle of the square, you never know who’s watching and brands should act accordingly online. 

Helpful social media marketing tips

All of the above might sound intimidating and an intuitive feeling brand managers might get is to simply stay of the square and hide in their shops. This is of course not the intention, quite the contrary. As mentioned, 70% of Facebook users said that one of the reasons they joined Facebook was to get information about new brands and products (Pereia et al, 2014). Just like the Jemaa El-Fnaa would have been a pretty boring place to visit without the merchants and snake charmers, social media would be a pretty dull place without the influence of brands. Weather we like it or not we are living in a consumption society where we signal our unique personal characteristics with the help of the goods and services we consume (Corrigan, 1997, p. 47). Brands might have a key role in this process, and can thus be a natural ingredient in social media. 

The main difference from traditional media channels that brands have to understand is that social media is egalitarian in its nature (Peter et. al, 2014). Brands can’t act in an authoritative way but should act like that nice German couple that sat in the restaurant. In essence they should blend in and be a natural part of the cultural setting and help you navigate the narrow alleys of the social media medina, earning your trust (Fournier and Avery, 2011). Once a brand has done that, consumers might just give it the “thumbs up” for everybody to see. Sounds easy enough right? Maybe not, so here are some more manageable tips from the academic literature. 

Getting brand message resonance

In order to gain resonance for your brand messages, one tactic could be to be where the action is and ride the attention wave. When doing this it is important to be relevant in the context of the action so that you seemingly fit in. Fournier and Avery (2011) calls this tactic “Playing their game” and highlights that this requires a good understanding of emerging cultural trends and governing principles in order to dilute the brands inherent intrusiveness in social settings. If done wrong it is possible that the intrusion will spark consumers to scrutinize the brand and creating a wave of negative word of mouth. In short, know yourself and understand the trend before riding on its viral wave (Fournier and Avery, 2011). To use the public square metaphor, join the crowd surrounding the dancing flash mob if you are a travel agency selling tickets to the Rio festival but not if you are representing a funeral home. 

Coping with transparency

Be authentic as a way to fight problems associated with transparency. Embrace the age of transparency by being genuine in the position that your brand has. All your actions and messages should be aligned with what you say because if they are not it is very possible that the “fraud” will be discovered. If you manage to make an authentic impression people will listen to what you have to offer (Fournier and Avery, 2011). To use the public square metaphor, when you as a consumer walk through the medina, the discrete but inviting door with the calm old man sitting inside might just be the most intriguing store to visit. Especially in contrast to the merchant chasing after you with his “uniquely handcrafted” tagine that you’ve seen displayed in all the other stores in the ally.   

Look outside the marketing department for expertise

With social media being a place where laud speaking critics can hide behind every corner, the risk evaluation expertise of the risk management within the finance department might be handy to use. Crafting authentic stories, placing content for pick-up and encouraging virality is arguably more driven by the principles of public relation than the traditional principles of marketing. (Fournier and Avery, 2011)

Don’t forget the basics of brand management

Last but not least, use the basic principles of brand management. Social media marketing is about developing relationships with your consumers and making them like you in order for them to invite you into their personal domain (Fournier and Avery, 2011). In order to do this you must build up trust, which in its essence is about living up to the promises your brand makes. Don’t be the snake charmer with a rubber snake in the middle of the square if you aim at attracting a crowd of followers. Barwise and Meehan (2010) mentions four basic qualities that brands with successful social media strategies have in common: The brand offers and communicate a clear brand promise, it builds trust by delivering on that promise, it drives the market by continually improving the promise and seek further advantage by innovating beyond the familiar. Very basic branding qualities that all brands need to get right. 

In essence then, the social media landscape has created an environment that empowers the consumers and where brands need to acknowledge the social dimension of the social media marketing channel. It is an arena that people mainly use to build and maintain offline relationships and brands should not disrupt these processes but rather support them and blend into their cultural context (Fournier and Avery, 2011). Just like Jemaa El-Fnaa offers a place for social interactions as well as for commerce, so does social media. Just make sure that your brand is part of the pleasant experience and not the intruding experience far to many tourists complains about in Marrakech. It’s nothing new; it’s simply a matter of understanding the word “social” in social media marketing. 











Reference list: 

Barwise, Patrick. Meehan, Seán. (2010). The One Thing You Must Get Right When Building a Brand. Harvard Business Review, December 2010

Corrigan, Peter (1997) The Sociology of Consumption. London: Sage Publications Ltd.

Deighton, John. Kornfeld, Leora (2009) Interactivity’s Unanticipated Consequences for Marketers and Marketing. Journal of Interactive Marketing, vol 23, pp. 4-10

Fournier, Susan. Avery, Jill. (2011) The uninvited brand. Busniess Horizons, vol 54, pp. 193-207

Pereira, Hélia Goncalves. Salgueiro, Maria da Fátima. Mateus, Ines. (2014) Say yes to Facebook and get your customers involved! Relationships in a world of social networks. Business Horizons, vol 57, pp. 695-702

Peters, Kay. Chen, Yubo. Kaplan, Andreas M. Ognibeni, Björn. Pauwels, Koen. (2013). Social Media Metrics – A Framework and Guidelines for Managing Social Media. Journal of Interactive Marketing, vol 27, pp. 281-298

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