Using free platforms and services for online branding

Written By Ellen Dorsman


In present day, there are more marketers active on and with social media platforms in order to create exposure, engagement and loyalty for their brands. Brand strategies have been undergoing significant transformation due to the rise of internet (Hoffman and Novak, 2012) and social networking. It seems inevitably not to pursue marketing through social media (Scott, 2011).  As a result, there is a lot of recent research into brands which now use social media to expand their exposure and awareness to consumers (Aljukadar and Senecal, 2010; Hanna, Rohm and Crittenden, 2011; Joachimsthaler and Aaker, 1997; Muniz and Schau, 2011), and help consumers resonate with the brand identity (Aaker, 1997; Christodoulides, 2009) in order to increase loyalty and product sales. However, this is all research about brands which now tap into social interaction as another tool of their marketing instruments. But what if the service or product has started on a social platform and is promoted as a free platform? How can marketers tap in to, and capitalize on, popular free online webservices created by consumers themselves?

There is a gap in academic research as to how marketers can do in this. By looking at health and workout websites which offer free services, insights, advice and full body workouts, an analysis on challenges and opportunities can be made.  How can these platforms be used for social branding, and how can the websites itself become a valuable asset? The purpose of this paper is to analyze challenges and opportunities for branding in social media by looking at free online workout platforms. Therewith, a contribution will be made to possibilities when dealing with free online services through social media. Next to that, a deep cultural analysis of the focused group will be exposed, and the paper will provide pragmatic insights as to how marketers can promote and use brand exposure.  

1.     Theoretical Framework

2.1 Health and the body as an utopia

Cosmopolitan, Men’s Health, the Paleo diet and Shape magazine are only tangible examples of an overarching meso-trend towards health and the ‘perfect’ body. There is a large paradigm shift when it comes to the body. The body and outer appearance have for centuries been a canvas, a reflection, of one’s life (Corrigan, 2007). In historical times, a ‘fat’ body was admired, because being fat equalled having  financial resources for proper food and provision for family. However, in current society there is a complete paradigm shift to this, where at the moment, being skinny or slim is admired. Being slim resonates to being disciplined, nurturing and healthy, with the visible results to prove for it. This is rooted in sociology and relates to the Kantian aesthetic (Miller, 1997) of being in control, morally aware, emotionally strong and cultivated. This meso-trend of health and fitness has been around in Western society since the early eighties.

However, in the last few years, there is another paradigm shift within this health trend, diverting from purely skinny to actually being fit and strong, alas being capable of earning your body. Working out and working hard to foster a healthy lifestyle. It relates to Maslow’s (1943) self-actualisation (Appendix I), where one’s individual potential is fully reached. 

Brands like Nike, Adidas, Asics  and Reebok have largely tapped into this ideology of the strong and winning self, where you are responsible for your own faith and become the maker of your body. Consumers identify with these brands in the sense that these are seen to be parts of themselves (Allwood, 2010). They choose products and brands that suit their identity or values (Aaker, 1997; Fournier, 1998). Consuming these brands and products then becomes an element in a large scheme of the self-expression.

Holt mentions in his dialectal theory on branding that in the ‘Post Postmodern Branding Paradigm’, which we are currently facing, this branding principle of self identity is called the Citizen-Artist, where brands become humanized and are relevant and authentic cultural resources.

Figure 1: Holt  (2002). Post postmodern part of dialectical theory model.

Figure 1: Holt  (2002). Post postmodern part of dialectical theory model.

However, Instead of big corporate brands pushing these ideas in order to sell more shoes, gadgets, apparel and so on, there are now niche markets growing offering free advice, work-outs and inspiration to each other. As a brand’s main target is profit, there is now a resistance against the trustworthiness (Aljukhadar and Senecal, 2011) of big corporations from individuals and a focus towards a more holistic and self-dependable perspective on being fit.  Brands are no longer the main component, the physical activity itself is.  Ideas of self-responsibility on health and identification with winners, is thus taken to a new level. Obviously this is also intertwined with new medical publications and theories on overall health, anti-branding, government policies and environmental impacts. However, these are too extensive to include and do not directly relate to the main purpose of this paper.

2.2 Social media as a tool for display and belonging

The offer of workout advisory has also transcended to online platforms. Social media are clear examples of cultural resources for the performing self (Featherstone, 1991) which places greater emphasis on appearance, display and the management of impressions. Askegaard (2006) refers to it as the marketed self.

Facebook for example is about liking and showing off, showing either ones educational background, wealth, experience, posted Instagram pictures of the latest ‘hip’ thing and moreover the display of being different, unique and authentic. This relates to the concept of Bourdieu (Corrigan, 1997; Holt and Cameron, 2010) by displaying cultural and economic capital, where social media become the perfect tools to do so, especially when it comes to achieving a health target or winning a race. Posting a picture is a matter of minutes.

Nonetheless, next to personal display, Kozinets (2002) builds upon social aspect from theories of Tönnies (1964) and Maffesoli (1996). Where the first focuses on the ‘Gemeinschaft’ idea of a close-knit community and belonging, and the latter on neo-tribalism. Neo-tribalism includes networks of people gathering together for social interaction, often around consumption, brands, interests, and values (Bauman, 2001; Kozinets, 2002; Maffesoli, 1996; Thompson and Troester, 2002). These concepts, of how the everyday life of post-modern tribes associate with common interests and lifestyles, leisure activities, fashion, fandom, gaming (Kozinets, 2001), have been widely applied in social media present day. Most commonly it is referred to as niche groups, which become a symbolic resource for the production of social identity (Elliott and Wattanasuwan, 1998). Some researchers have recommended that managers create a brand community or try to leverage the existence of tribes of individuals impassioned by a brand (Cova and Cova, 2002). That is exactly what social media is about; facilitation and the creation and sharing of user generated content through online social platforms. This is expected to lead to stronger and deeper relationships between brands and consumers (Christodoulides, 2009). Now that the parameters of belonging and the derivation of social media are clear, the next step is identifying opportunities and challenges for marketers in branding through social media.

3. Opportunities and challenges in branding through social media

Digital interactivity creates new opportunities for the marketer to contribute to culture (Deigthon and Kornfeld, 2009). Social networking is a useful addition of the marketing channels for companies and can be used as a cultural resource for consumers. However, social media make it more urgent than ever, that companies get the basics right, developing and reliably delivering on a compelling brand promise. (Barwise and Meehan, 2010).

Image 1. website

Image 1. website

As an example of the workout platforms out there, (Appendix II) and Skinny is the new Strong (SINS) (Appendix III) will be further analyzed. Unique, thoughtful content is what Scott (2011) considers being key to a brandpromise and in this case the online work-outs platforms harvest enormous visitornumbers and interaction. Providing real, compelling, informative and useful information will generate a buzz for a brand and as a result, more consumers will follow. 

The two examples tapped in to a need for people wanting full body workouts, without the hassle of leaving home and including time-efficiency. With over 750 million views is underway to become a well established brand. Both Facebook fanpages of the two websites count enormous followers (Appendix II and III). The ideas portrayed relate heavily to cultural capital and Kantianism.

The Web 2.0 (de Chernatorny and Christodilious, 2004) was created not to sell branded products, but to link people together in collective conversational webs (Fournier and Avery, 2011). Members develop and share rationales for the time and effort they devote to the brand (Muniz and Schau, 2011). For brands opportunities here lie with consumer empowerment. Cova and Pace (2006) argue for promotion of contribution on social platforms, as this will increase consumer awareness and loyalty. Consumer wish to be heard responded to, and through this, new initiatives, meanings and messages can be formed resulting in collaboration.

Figure 2. Web 2.0 Branding shift (Christodoulides, 2009)

Figure 2. Web 2.0 Branding shift (Christodoulides, 2009)

Consumers use the websites to collect insights and a range of health tips and workouts, and connect with Facebook pages to interact with each other and the teams. The sites embody the epitome of health and discipline. Consumers use the websites, clear workouts and posted items as a way of co-creation and craftconsumption (Campbell, 2005) where the brands become building blocks of their online identity profile, which then transcends the previous theories of Holt (2002).

Image 2. Consumer engagement and advocacy

Image 2. Consumer engagement and advocacy

As mentioned before, the use of smaller niche-groups [or communities] and fan pages increases a brand’s popularity and fan-base as it resonates with a certain group of people. Consumer subcultures therefore provide another resource for brands to build an original myth that claims authenticity (Holt, 2002).  The two platforms are in contrast with highly sponsored advertisements which display unattainable goals. 

As mentioned before, the use of smaller niche-groups [or communities] and fan pages increases a brand’s popularity and fan-base as it resonates with a certain group of people. Consumer subcultures therefore provide another resource for brands to build an original myth that claims authenticity (Holt, 2002).  The two platforms are in contrast with highly sponsored advertisements which display unattainable goals.

However, the targeting of niche groups and over-exposure to advertisement and technology also poses some challenges. Fragmentation of relationships and families has fostered an absence of real social interaction, framing a historical change which gives way to a social disruption (Dorsman, 2012).The signal of the post postmodern [lack of] communication is based on isolation, insecurity, and individualism (Stacey, 1990).  People go online to look for similarities with people and real bonding, only to find the opposite. Subcultures look for authenticity, but due to the sheer number of available brands, advertisements and exposure to products, ‘authenticity is becoming an endangered species’ (Holt, 2002, p.86)

Next to that, the extensive use of technology challenges marketers to evenly spread their interaction. The relationship built by means of technologies is both parasitic and symbiotic (Warner, 2008) and require a technology rehab or media diet for an increase in real, personal connections. A challenge rising from this is the reduction of online consumerism and how to keep a brand prevalent.

When it comes to analyzing consumer flows, social media are an excellent tool. Facebook in particular has such tremendous reach that it can provide detailed quantitative analyses of communication flows between consumers. (Barwise and Meehan, 2010)

As identity is core to many social media platforms, it also presents a major fundamental implication for firms seeking to develop strategies and engagement, namely privacy (Kietzmann, Hermkens, McCarthy and Silvestre, 2011). Though consumers might be aware of their publicly published and analyzed details, the mazes and loopholes make it difficult to have complete control over personal information. Even though with social media consumers cannot have complete anonymity, in today’s society, transparency and trust are gaining support when consuming a brand (Gustafsson, 2005). A brand or website will only be trusted to perform as a cultural source when marketers demonstrate that they meet these public responsibilities.

A challenge for brand marketers is also the growing demand shareholders would have on their Return on Investment. This relates to one of Holt’s (2002) contradictions, namely the sponsored society. It seems the quantity and aggressiveness of the sponsoring through other online networks and profiles is becoming greater. Think of spamming or blunt advertising.
Yet, the two posed examples avoid this problem as their services are for free and run by few responsible representatives. A problem that these free online workout websites do have is marketplace legitimacy(Cova and Pace, 2006). As it is run by personal trainers and a workout addict here and there, the question poses itself on who constitutes the brand’s legitimate purchaser, that is, who a true believer or brand community member is. In comparison to having different channels for different target groups (Breuer and Brettel, 2012) an advice here is to fully integrate social media communication towards your target group through all channels.

The websites and connected social media embody a way of life which resonate with their believers and fellow ‘bodyrockers’ and ‘SINS’. They offer a genuine service in helping people becoming fit and active. The members of Bodyrock and Strong is the New Skinny then become advocates of the workouts, websites and representatives. Both sites have a ‘hall of fame’ commemorating the achievements of followers through pictures and progress. These values of self-realization, personal responsibility, 'ownership', accountability and self-management are both personally attractive and economically desirable (Hollway, 1991; Miller and Rose, 1990).

These two websites are a form of what Deighton and Kornfeld (2009) call a cultural exchange, where the collective meaning and personal identity are prevalent, other authors (Holt and Cameron, 2010) confirm this by regarding them as a cultural innovation and gaining cultural resonance by being where the action is (Fournier and Avery,2011). 

Figure 2. Deighton and Kornfeld’s categorization of Interactive Marketing

Figure 2. Deighton and Kornfeld’s categorization of Interactive Marketing

A major remaining challenge connected to the free services is whether marketers can still capitalize on this? An option would be buzzmarketing (Deighton and Kornfeld, 2009) where individuals don't feel as if they are receiving advertising messages. Consumers rather receive the impression of passing on something that is novel, entertaining, and very much of the moment. Visual display is of large importance, as for example with Facebook vividness, interactivity and the position of the post (De Vries, Gensler and Leeflang, 2012) are apparently key drivers of a brand post's popularity.

Actual actions for the websites include endorsements and product display within the video’s. Especially with the movement it can be seen that brands give products to the representatives of the website for them to use, wear or display and obviously share with their followers (Appendix IV). Another aspect is the use of banner advertising's, as these have proven saleseffective when customers are known with the website and its use and have experience with the promoted products (Breuer and Brettel, 2012). Key here is that the products and brands offered must be connected to the offered service of that time.

The two given examples verify that a proactive social media strategy is the best position to reap rewards from user-generated content (Smith, Fischer and Yongjian, 2012). Nonetheless, it seems being pro-active and engaging with your consumer is fairly logical if you wish to increase opportunities on the web.

4.     Conclusion

There is a paradigm shift when it comes to health and the body. There are some online social platforms which have successfully tapped in to this by offering advice, inspiration and free workout services. Consumers identify with these website and use them as a cultural resource in the creation of their identity or values (Aaker, 1997; Fournier, 1998).

Social media has to provide the option of personal display as well as communal social interaction around brands, interests and values. Branding through social media has to facilitate creation and sharing of user generated content.

Opportunities for marketers lie in responsiveness, consumer empowerment, identification of niche groups, trustworthy and authentic brand promises, capitalization through product placement and endorsements. Challenges involve the balance of control, disconnection of real life relationships, possible reduction of online consumerism, privacy violation and market legitimacy. As a marketer you have to keep in mind  that absolute control is illusory (Muniz and Schau, 2011) and rather facilitation of sharing is key in successful online branding.

Delivering a cultural resource, in this case in relation to creating self-dependence, strength and ownership through health and workouts seems to be the ultimate goal for generating good online branding. Branding on the internet exemplifies participation and co-creation of meaning (Vargo and Lusch ,2004) as a key element for successful social interaction. It necessary to put consumers firsts, and having a clear brand promise that resonates with certain niche groups. The bonding, sharing and interdependence in niches group only becomes a reality upon nurturing and encouraging participation. To remain relevant, a brand has to each time re-create the authenticity and invite local appropriation (Schroeder and Morling, 2006).

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Appendix I:

Maslow’s (1943) hierarchy pyramid of consumer needs

maslows hierarchy.png

Appendix II 

Image: Bodyrock tv Facebook fanpage. personal trainer. Over 176,000 likes.


Appendix III

Image: Strong is the New Skinny opening page Facebook fansite. Close to 95.000 likes, immediate display of consumer empowerement and engagement. Available through: