How Brand Management can survive the Web 2.0 era

Written by Anna Åberg

Social media has been a buzzword for a long time and the realization that companies need to use social media to interact with their consumers is not new. The shift in power, from company to consumer, has arisen as an issue (Christodoulides, 2009) in regards to more traditional brand management practices (Keller, 1993). What happens when the consumer’s power increases and the brand owner no longer make all the calls? Is the need for brand managers eliminated? The growth of social media has created online communities and brand communities with the power to influence, and in some cases even, control brand content. Today, online consumer communities, rather than traditional advertisement and media, deliver and create the promotional messaging for brands. Companies can no longer take for granted that they can or even should try to control their brands (Barwise and Meehan, 2010; Fournier & Avery, 2011; Sing & Sonnenburg, 2012). Will your brand community become your brand management team? If brand management will survive the Web 2.0 era, what type of companies will be influencing the brand management practice? Are there any best practices out there today, which can prepare us for the future of brand management? 

In an attempt to answer these questions I will invite you to have a closer look at how the hospitality company Airbnb works with branding. Airbnb is an interesting company to address in this discussion as of their business model, operating within the peer-to-peer marketplace, where transactions occur between consumers and the company acts as a facilitator rather than a traditional product/service owner. In short, Airbnb’s business is based and built upon their community. Without their community they would not even have a product/service to sell. 

“Social Media was not made for brands, but for people”

Over the last couple of years there has been an ongoing discussion whether the era of brands is dead or not. The question is being raised both from academics, journalists, companies as well as consumers.  

Skibsted & Hansen’s thoughts on the topic of the future for brands and brand management were presented in an article in Harvard Business Review, in early 2014. They highlight that the consumer’s need for brands as a quality assurance has decreased, instead the consumers can go online and engage and read reviews written by other consumers. Skibsted & Hansen suggest that because of this, the general brand value will fall. Although, they also suggest that this does not at all mean the death of brands but rather the opposite - but change is needed! By reflecting on Apple and Google the article highlights the shift from focusing on expensive advertisement to putting the company’s money towards relevant and valuable content for the customer as well as a highly functional product that meets the customer’s needs. 

These opinions are also defined through academic research.  Christodoulides (2009) questions the functionality and relevance in traditional branding theories (Keller, 1993) because of the rise of the Internet and social media. He does not in particular question the future of brands but he stresses the need for new ways to work with branding to accommodate consumers being online and the new marketing environment that Web 2.0 has created. Barwise and Meehan (2010) agrees that brands will not become irrelevant in the future but in contrast to Christodoulides (2009) they believe that traditional marketing activities and branding will still be relevant and that it in fact will be more important than ever to get the branding basics right, because of today’s social media environment. Fournier & Avery (2011) presents an interesting point when they explain the difficulties for marketers in the Web 2.0 era. They emphasize their realization that social media was not made for brands, but for people. The days when the firm set the brand’s agenda is over and now the consumers are the ones in charge. They decide when a brand can enter social communities (Fournier & Avery 2011). Gensler et al (2013) agrees that the rise of social media is challenging the traditional way of working with branding and thereby the way many brand managers manages “their” brands today. They believe that as the brand, to a much larger extent nowadays is controlled by consumers, the brand managers might need to focus more on protecting the brand’s reputation than brand management per se. They suggest that brand management should become more similar to public relations. This is one of many opinions on how to tackle this large change affecting the practice of brand management. Further, I will guide you through the major theories on this shift in brand management practice. 

New branding approaches - there is hope! 

Resent theoretical research presents three different main approaches to branding in the Web 2.0 era: 

  1. The so-called Back - to - Basics branding approach (Barwise and Meehan, 2010) manifests in the importance of having the fundamentals of the brand and its strategy in place. The rise of the Internet and social media makes it more important than ever for a company to know what their brand stands for and what the brand promise is. 
  2. The Open-Source branding approach (Fournier & Avery, 2011) is built upon the understanding of the consumer’s power because of the rise of Web 2.0 and on the belief that the only way to “manage” a brand is to leave the control to the consumer. “Brand consumption can serve as social glue connecting consumers to each other” (Fournier & Avery, 2011) and online communities are essential for a brand’s development.  
  3. The third approach is the Performance branding approach (Sing & Sonnenburg, 2012). Here the branding process is compared to a theater play. The brand is the star of the performance and the company’s management decides on the script. The consumers are the main character of the play. The question is to what extent the actors keep to the script. Do they interpret the script in the same way as the brand owner would or will the actor understand it differently and create an adjusted story? Is Al Pacino constantly following the scripts without putting his touch to it? Probably not. The point with performance branding is for the company to focus on the process rather than on the results as these are created together with the consumers. 

All these approaches suggest that there will be a place for brands and brand management in the future if they manage to adapt. It’s agreed that firms need to hand over more control over the brand to the consumer. All these approaches also agree on the current power of online communities. 

The power of online communities

Researchers as well as opinion leaders have (such as HBR) acknowledged the power of online communities, as well as the challenges that come with it. Companies need to hand over at least some of their control to be able to create active communities (Barwise and Meehan, 2010). This could possibly be one of the major challenges for marketing practitioners in the era of Web 2.0. According to (Fournier & Avery, 2011) the best examples on successful brand management is when the brand is managed to naturally involve in ongoing conversations within online communities. There is always a risk that the community does not accept the brand and therefore refuses to let the brand into the conversation. It seems like a high level of authenticity can help a brand to become respected within a particular community and the opposite, artificiality would mean being excluded from the community. As Fournier & Avery (2011) put it: 

Managers that create branded artifacts, social rituals, and cultural icons issue invitations to their own ‘parties’ rather than waiting patiently for consumer hosts to invite the brand in.”

There are certain brands that were born during the Web 2.0 era, who have incorporated collective power and thereby authentic communities into their business model. These companies base their offer on the interconnectedness that the online environment entails (Pitt, Berthon, Watson, & Zinkhan, 2002). The online communities make these companies able to operate at all. One example of this type of firms is the hospitality company Airbnb, an online-based service provider, which connects hosts (housing owners) and renters (people looking to rent housing). 

Airbnb - best practice for brand management in the Web 2.0 era

As mentioned in the introduction, Airbnb’s business model makes their brand interesting and relevant to study when trying to understand how to grip brand management in the Web 2.0 environment. The main players in Airbnb’s setup are the hosts (also called the suppliers) and the renters (Airbnb’s consumers).  According to the company’s founders, Airbnb’s recent successful rebranding process was based on the insight that the brand’s community grew faster then the brand itself. They needed to accommodate by emphasizing what the brand is truly about, externally but also internally (Airbnb, n. d.). Airbnb started off a few years ago by creating an offer together with their community. Now, the brand community has become so strong that it drives development supporting the success of the company. Is this not a sign of brand authenticity in full glory? The brand strategist, Shekha Wilson (2014) explains from a professional point of view, in four parts, how Airbnb work to manage their brand even if their brand experience is dependent on the hosts within Airbnb’s community.

  1. Airbnb over-delivers on all of the things they can control.  

They managed to create and sustain great service through visually beautiful and functional services through technical solutions. Their systems are easy to use and their rating system keeps a high level of safety and quality.

2. Airbnb vets hosts.

Anyone and anyhow can not start renting out there apartment through Airbnb. First they will go through a process, which makes sure that the host and the apartment offer a service that is aligned with Airbnb’s mission. 

3. Airbnb creates strong incentives for their hosts.

Airbnb are able to influence the customer brand experience through the hosts by creating both financial and social incentives for them. 

4. Airbnb is a purpose-driven brand, not a product-driven brand.

By focusing on providing a unique experience rather than just a consistent product/service, Airbnb are able to engage their customers. Evidently, by ceding control of their brand they open the door for authentic engagement within their brand community. 

We already concluded that there appear to be a future for both brands and brand management and that the challenge is to adapt by ceding some control to the consumer. Airbnb appear to use a mix of the earlier mentioned branding approaches (Barwise and Meehan, 2010; Fournier & Avery, 2011; Sing & Sonnenburg, 2012) although the focus seems to be based on the performance approach, where their community is a part of the play and the brand management team. Within a seven-year timeframe, Airbnb has managed to create a brand valued at $14 billion. It is fair to say that this company qualifies as best practice for the brand management practice within the Web 2.0 era. Shekha Wilson’s explanation on how Airbnb balances brand control, can successfully function as guidelines for companies trying to understand how to adopt their business in general and brand management practice in particular, to the Web. 2.0 era. 


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