User-generated brand storytelling: pushing brand’s reputation towards the edge of the cliff

Written by Alexandra Djoukanova

A powerful online community of arbiters, commentators and critics uses social media platforms as a setting to share and spread user-generated brand stories of disappointment and frustration, thus putting the brand’s reputation at risk.

Social Media – Not Everything that Glitters is Gold

Social media has significantly altered the brandscape in a way that brands are now intertwined in a complex social environment where countless users share tones of unfiltered information and where brand managers no longer have the control. The rapid growth and popularity of social networks such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, etc. prompted brands to rush into social media in an attempt to foster their relationship with consumers (Laroche, Habibi & Richard, 2013). Web 2.0 created an environment for people and their conversations (Fournier & Avery, 2011), doubtlessly providing numerous opportunities for brands, but also challenging brand’s performance and bringing some dramatic shifts to brand marketing.

Brands of the 21st century are largely created by collective experiences, interpretations (Dennhardt, 2012) and stories (Gensler et al, 2013; Singh & Sonnenburg, 2012) that individuals share easily through the Internet. Just by typing the name of any brand in Google, the search results will typically show not only the corporate website, but also blogs, forums and pages where people share fully formed impressions of brands (Brown, Broderick & Lee, 2007). Is that good or bad? Should brands be anxious about their reputation? Fournier and Avery (2011) point out that “the social collective is an inherently self-interested entity whose activities are not necessarily aligned with the best interests of the brand” (p.197). What is more, Business Insider (2012) reveals that 55% of the respondents in a recent research said they were frustrated with brands' social media communications. This is an indicator of the existence of powerful online community of arbiters, commentators and critics (Fournier & Avery, 2011) whose storytelling could potentially push brand’s reputation towards the edge of the cliff. Without denying the opportunities that Web 2.0 creates for brands to evolve, the article aims to bring forward the risks that user-generated brand storytelling poses for brand’s reputation in an online environment.

Unfolding social media, brand storytelling and brand reputation

Social media has now been widely used to refer to the online environment where consumers, products and brands meet. It allows consumers to exchange information about products or services as well as take part in the brand value co-creation (Vinerean et al, 2013). Thus, social media favors relationship and brand community building (Winer, 2009; Hutter et al, 2013), enables consumers to share information with their peers and encourage companies to have a more sincere communication with the consumers (Erdoğmuş & Çiçek, 2012).

Still, there is a need to clearly define what social media is as it reflects a new perspective of marketing and branding. Kaplan and Haenlein (2010) define social media as “a group of internet-based applications that builds on the ideological and technological foundations of Web 2.0, and it allows the creation and exchange of user-generated content” (p. 61). The definition has three key pillars: (1) it differentiates between social media and Web 2.0, being the latter the technological part of the equation; (2) it recognizes the empowered consumer who is no longer a passive receiver of information; (3) it introduces the term user-generated content (UCG) explained by the author as publicly available, creative and made for non-commercial purposes content that people generate and share between themselves. This article focuses on the last two points.

The social media has enabled user-generated brand content (Singh & Sonnenburg, 2012), emerging with or without the company’s participation (Kietzmann et al, 2011). Therefore, user-generated brand storytelling could be defined as conversations created by customers as they share their experiences of the brand. As social media provides convenient setting for spreading stories (Gensler et al, 2013) brand storytelling has become increasingly interactive and influential (Singh & Sonnenburg, 2012). It has become harder for managers to deal with this uncontrollable digital environment (Winner, 2009; Gensler et al, 2013) where brands exist, intertwined in the stories of the customers. Blogs and micro blogs for example are one of the most powerful sources on the Internet as they provide a gathering point for people willing to share their stories. Branding literature recognizes the importance of brand storytelling because, while firm-generated brand stories are stable, coherent and tend to follow particular communication strategy, user-generated storytelling is unpredictable and very likely to promote completely different meaning of the brand (Gensler et al, 2013; Singh & Sonnenburg, 2012). Logo parodies, brand spoofs and criticism, that circulate around the web, illustrate how vulnerable the corporate brand reputation is in the online environment.

Popular definitions of brand reputation in the literature navigate around two main points: (1) company’s actions over time and (2) ability to deliver value to multiple stakeholders. (Roper & Fill, 2012; Argenti & Druckenmiller, 2004). Moreover, Kapferer’s brand identity prism illustrates the relationship between both the internal perspective of the company and the external perception of the consumer, thus it is evident that opinions of different stakeholders are important for brand’s reputation and performance. Brand’s reputation therefore, reflects the consumer perspective and the perceptions of the audiences for the brand in a long run. That is the reason why Roberts (2010) states that social media poses challenges for keeping brand’s reputation from harm and many companies fear that online communications hold more treats rather than opportunities. Then, as reputation is essentially built around an external brand image (Roper & Fill, 2012), the exploration of user-generated brand storytelling is important as it provides understanding about brands' performance in the social media.

McDonald’s reputation at stake

The storyline unfolds two examples of McDonald’s social media communication, discussed in terms of context, content and process – the three theatrical components of the "improv theatre" metaphor, suggested by Singh and Sonnenburg (2012).

McDonald’s is certainly not an active participant in the social media but two recent examples remained in history. Behind the curtains of the performance, the context looks simple. The Internet has provided a stage for big brands as McDonald’s to be exposed to extreme social media attention. Both examples will discuss McDonald’s promoted campaigns in Twitter. They took unexpected turns as the company failed to consider that microblogging makes it more convenient for dissatisfied customers to protest and bring up potentially harmful facts or stories about the brand (Kaplan & Haenlein, 2010).

It all started back in 2012 with the #MeetTheFarmers sponsored hashtag in Twitter, meant to promote the coorporation’s guarantee of fresh produce (Daily Mail, 2012). The campaign was going well until McDonald’s tried to engage its customers and posted a Tweet reading ‘When u make something w/pride, people can taste it,’ - McD potato supplier #McDStories.” (Daily Mail, 2012). The #McDStories hashtag was meant to encourage people to share lovely experiences in the fast food chain. One detail made it all wrong. Because of the increasing interest in personal health as well as public concern with obesity problems, McDonald’s had faced harsh criticism for its junk food and the brand was certainly not associated with “fresh” among most people (Postadvertising, 2013). Instead, corporation’s market research identifies that McDonald’s main target segments (children, youths and young families) valued the food chain for providing fast service, variety of products, pleasant atmosphere, internet and toys for the children. (McDonald’s, 2008). As a result, trying to push forward the “fresh” message in Twitter clashed with what the audiences valued and this evident mismatch in perceptions about the brand burst into incontrollable storytelling.

#McDStories promoted hashtag hijacked  Source: The Telegraph, 2012

#McDStories promoted hashtag hijacked

Source: The Telegraph, 2012

Contrary to what the company expected, the new hashtag #McDStories, produced undesirable content as users’ attached to it incredible horror stories at the fast food chain (Forbes, 2012). Interestingly, just one year later the McDonald’s faced similar problems again caused by promoted hashtag in Twitter. This time #UnwrapWhatsFresh intended to endorse the new Premium McWrap and again promote the fresh idea, but instead, it gave rise to some sweet nothings with a vulgar connotation (Postadvertising, 2013). Both examples show that brand communications in the social media have been heavily criticized and potentially harmful for its reputation. The hashtags, that are still gathering steam in Twitter, catalyzed a wave of storytellers eager to express their criticism.

These two campaigns illustrate the brand’s willingness to communicate with its customers in a certain way and trying to influence their perceptions. What went wrong was the lack of a basic script to serve as guidelines for all willing to get involved in the brand storytelling. According to Singh and Sonnenburg (2012) general script (or brand concept) and interrelated stories are needed for producing a desirable content. However, in the case of McDonald’s, it all resulted in a mess of random mostly negative tweets.

#UnwrapWhatsFresh goes wrong  Source: Postadvertising, 2013

#UnwrapWhatsFresh goes wrong

Source: Postadvertising, 2013


McDonald’s campaigns in Twitter provides a setting for audiences to interact and thus, process relates to their level of involvement or, in other words, are they spectators or active participants (Singh & Sonnenburg, 2012). The #McDStories conversations had their peak at about 1600 tweets during the first hour, representing barely 2% of all McDonald’s mentions for that day (Business Insider, 2012). Even though very few participated they were highly involved and their storytelling fully covered several hours following the campaign. Being all over the place, the stories had the potential to influence spectators and independent readers and harm the brand’s reputation. Compared to that, the #UnwrapWhatsFresh promoted hashtag did not have as damaging consequences, because the company went offline, throwing a massive party to promote the Premium McWrap, which inspired positive emotions and tweets from the event. Both examples show that the hashtag campaigns had the potential to increase the level of involvement and engage active participants in the brand storytelling process. In order to have a positive outcome though, the idea behind the message needs to be aligned with the customers’ perception of the brand.

Caution – slippery road!

Now that marketers are aware that consumers are the pivotal authors of brand stories in the branding process (Gensler et al, 2013), they try to engage with them in virtual conversations. McDonald’s case, however, shows that user-generated brand storytelling, is a slippery road for brand’s performance and all at a sudden it transformed brand building into brand protection (Fournier & Avery, 2011). Therefore, the three components - context, content and process – of the ‘improv theatre’ metaphor can be used to sketch the considerations that marketers should have in mind in their online communication strategy.

First, context reflects how the choice of setting influences what kind of audiences have access to the brand story and how it will be shared. As in the case of McDonald’s, the brand has thousands of active followers in Twitter and as a result a huge buzz is created only in the first hour following the campaign. So, on one hand the choice of platform should provide the possibility for user-generated content but brands need to be aware of what audiences, opinion leaders and critics are involved in the discussion and anticipate their comments.

Although, it may seem obvious, context goes hand in hand with content, because users only share what amazes them. The main issue that content can create for brand’s reputation is a mismatch between the message that the company wants to send and the customers’ perception of what the brand stands for. To avoid negative consequences on brand’s reputation, marketers should think outside-in, taking into consideration what do customers value, how do they perceive the brand and adapt it to the content they want to create.

Lastly, the process, or the level of involvement, is highly dependent on the content and the setting where the campaign takes place. Two possible scenarios that cause problems are either irrelevant content that fails to engage audiences or, as in the case of McDonald’s, inappropriate content that fires up a negative brand storytelling. Both should be avoided but the latter poses serious risks for brand’s reputation, as negative stories are difficult to respond to, control and almost impossible to stop. What is important for marketers to acknowledge is that user-generated storytelling is a process in which people are welcome to develop and share their stories, but still, to save its reputation, certain guidelines need to be set by the brand itself.



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