Power is shifting through social media, consumers are taking the driver’s seat

21st August


Written by Simon Hellberg


Power is shifting through social media, consumers are taking the driver’s seat, brands may find them self´s demoted to passengers. An investigation on how consumer power is enforced on social media. 

1.0 Introduction

The truth is that individual consumers have little power over large corporations, however internet and social media ensures one-to-many and many-to-many communications (Pitt et al, 2002). Pitt et al (2002) further states that this has in turn shifted the traditional power imbalance between brands and consumers. Hence this paper aims to investigate and provide examples on how consumers can exercise over brands power through social media.

1.1 Power is shifting through social media, however how is social media defined

In order to have a have fruitful argument, it is necessary to define how the concept is interpreted in this paper. Social media is more often than not is defined too narrowly; it is confined to Facebook and similar platforms (Tuten 2008, in Papasolomou & Melanthiou, 2012). This narrow definition is not too surprising, considering that Facebook alone has 850 million users (2012) that daily produce around 1.2 billion likes and uploads around 250 million photos. (Hoffman & Novak, 2012).  However social media are platforms or websites were visitors/consumers can publish, produce, control, critique and interact with on another (Tuten, 2008 in Papasolomou & Melanthiou, 2012 ). Thus several types of interactive sites can be included in the concept of social media, such as blogs, micro blogs, video sharing, wikis, forums, opinion sites and of course social networks such as Facebook (Giannini, 2010 in Papasolomou & Melanthiou, 2012). Thus the above definition of social media is the one adopted in this paper. Further the term brand will be used, the adopted definition is taken from Oxfords dictionary “a type of product manufactured by a particular company under a particular name” (Oxford Dictionaries).

2.0 Power is shifting, social media empower consumers

Hanna et al (2011) claims that social media has altered the internet. Internet has gone from a platform of information to a platform for influence. Fournier & Avery (2011) argues that social media, the technology that was supposed to make brands even more powerful has empowered consumers instead. It would seem that consumers as a group through internet and social media has gained power. As stated in the introduction Pitt et al (2002) contends that individuals have very limited power compared to big corporations or brands. However it would seem that social media is shifting the power balance, providing consumers with power. Further it seems that social media is in the epicenter of the power shifting process, since consumers resists brands on their social media platforms (Fournier & Avery 2011). This pushes consumers into the driver´s seat and forces brands in some cases to become adaptive observers.

2.1 Power is shifting, consumers take control, brands must adapt

Fournier & Avery (2011) contends that even though marketers and brands claim to have thousands and thousands of consumers following them on Facebook, twitter, blogs and other social media, the platform was not designed for selling branded products. Rather it was designed to link and interconnect individuals in conversational webs (Fournier & Avery 2011). This subsequently means that brands are not always welcome on social media. Fournier & Avery (2011) concludes that social media is reconstructing branding, going from a world where brands were in power, to a world in which the consumers possesses it.  Consumers have the power to decide whether the brands and the marketers behind them are welcome on social media or not. Thus consumers have the power to decide which brands they interact with.

Barwise & Meehan (2010) argues that conversations or interactions about brands on social media are generally unstructured, semi-structured and mostly moderated by the participants them self’s, following un-written rules. Barwise & Meehan (2010) further states that brands are free to join, however only if they are accepted by the other participants. Thus consumers are in power.  Barwises & Meehan (2010) arguments truly highlight the ongoing shift in power through social media, from brands and to consumers. Today brands must almost ask for permission to join and should definitely adapt to the culture on the social platform which the brand are active on. Consumers then have a certain amount of control and power over social media and brands must accept and adapt to that in order to build trust. Khong et al (2013) argues that to increase trust, it is crucial that their social media outlet ensures that consumers are able to post and share information. Further should this option not be available or if comments are deleted, consumer trust may be reduced (Khong et al 2013).  Since brand trust is connected to interactivity, brands cannot remove the option. However interactivity may also be harmful for the brand. Thus brands must adapt to consumers on social media and the fact that brands have to give in and adapt indicates that consumers are indeed are leveling out the power balance. Further since consumers now have a certain amount of power, it is unlikely that they will accept their power being diminished.   The following section will provide an example of consumer can use their power through social media.

2.2 Power is shifting, consumers can raise products from the dead

The following segment describes a recent Swedish example that clearly illustrates the power consumers can enforce through social media. In this particular case a group of consumers implemented their power through Facebook, the goal was to bring back the ako-kola (a Swedish candy), the brand has not been sold in stores since 2006. Three administrators (marketers) created a Facebook group which goal was to get enough likes to bring back the ako. Ultimately they were successful in their efforts, one picture of an old ako ad was posted and the picture got around 30.000 likes. The power of one picture on social media made Cloetta (the company that owns ako) reintroduce the ako-brand in select stores (Carlsson, 2014). Even though the project partly was an experiment conducted by marketers, the example illustrates that, through social media consumers have the power to influence and make brand owners take action. The ako case demonstrates that consumers indeed in some circumstances are in the driver’s seat, forcing companies to comply with their demands.

3.0 Power is shifting, consumers control information & content

Power is shifting, brands used to be in control over information and content, however the control, the power is slipping out of their grasp, into the hands of consumers.  Media usage is shifting from broadcasting to interactivity (Deighton & Kornfeld, 2009). As stated above brands are losing power, they are losing control over what kind of information about them exists on the internet (Kaplan & Haenlin, 2009). One factor contributing to this is according to Hanna et al (2011) social media platforms, such as Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, wikis etc.  Social media have brought changes, consumers are now able to derive power from one another, and consumers are able to promote perspectives that diverge from the images brands want to convey (Christodoulides, 2009). For instance if consumers google Abercrombie & Fitch, it is not only official Abercrombie websites that show in the first five results. The company’s Wikipedia page also show, where everyone is free to read about the controversies connected to the company (google.se/search words, Abercrombie & Fitch). Information that the company perhaps do not want to be easily accessible, information that provides consumers with power. Further the information also makes it possible for consumers to create their own brand images, in other words consumers have the power to in a way become brand managers. Because of this Gensler et al (2013) contends that brands must adapt, as social media has distorted the power over brands stories, as consumers have the power to become brand authors. The authors further argue that this complicates matters for brand owners because of the diversity of brand stories and the multitude of social media channels these stories are spread in (Gensler et al, 2013).

The following sections will provide examples on how consumers can use their power on social media in order to distort brand images.

3.1 Power is shifting, consumers have the power to harm brands

According to Kaplan & Haenlin (2009) companies have been demoted to mere observers that does not have the knowledge, the chance and sometimes not even the right to change comments posted by consumers. In other words consumers are not powerless passive receivers anymore, they are actively creating content, they are in control over information and content, thus gaining power. Abercrombie and Fitch can again be used as an example. Or rather the Abercrombie and Fitch brand adjustment video, fitch the homeless (Delorean & Lisi, 2013). The video has over 8 million views on youtube and there is nothing Abercrombie & Fitch can do about it.  One consumer or a community spreads a new image, new content a new story. That is incompatible with the brand image Abercrombie and Fitch want consumers to have. In other words consumers have the power distort brand meanings and engage in anti-branding. It can be argued that anti-branding websites are rather clear manifestation of growing consumer power, a manifestation of an ongoing power shift (Krishnamurthy & Kucuk, 2009). The Abercrombie and Fitch video is one of many examples of anti-branding. Another good case of anti-branding and illustration of how consumers have the power to control information and content is www.mccruelty.com. The website is dedicated to exposing McDonald´s cruelty to animals for consumers, for instance visitors of the website can read that “Chickens killed for McDonald's are slaughtered using an outdated method that results in extreme suffering”(MCcruelty: I’m hating it). Furthermore the website uses classical McDonald´s characters such as Ronald McDonald and asks what the evil version of the famous clown is thinking while he is barbarically slaughtering chickens. In other words mccruelty.com uses a famous McDonald´s icons against the company, consumers can then use the information the website provides and share it on various social media(What would evil Ronald say on…Twitter). Hence consumers of today have the power to easily spread harmful information about companies. Indicating a shift in power, from a world where companies and brands were the sovereign masters over content and information. To a world in which consumers to some extent have power over what kinds of content and information exists about brands on social media. This development seems to something brands cannot stop, thus they need to adapt and create content together with consumers, not shouting their message from the roof tops expecting consumers to listen.

4.0 The power shift, Conclusions

It is clear that social media has led to a shift in the power balance between brands and consumers. As this paper has illustrated that in some cases consumers are in the driver´s seat, the ones in power. Trough social media consumers have the power to control which brands are welcome and how they are welcome. Consumers have the power to raise products from the grave, the power to control content and information thus being able to change and distort brand images. Since consumers are gaining power and social media is something brands are almost forced to use. It would be interesting to further investigate how brands adapt and changes the way they brand images are created.  

4.1 Critique on literature and limitations

The truth is social media is constantly developing, new posts, new blogs, new ways of communicating. This means that academic literature have a hard time keeping up with the powerful pace social media evolves. Nor is it possible for academics let alone anyone to control or observe all that is happing on social media. Thus the articles cited in this paper in many cases describing social media that may not correlate with what is happening today. This is of course a limitation of this paper and academic papers discussing social media in general. However even if social media has evolved since the articles were written, consumers are still gaining power through social media. Thus the choice of literature is validated.

6.0 Reference list

Barwise, P. and Meehan, S. (2010), “The one thing you must get right when building a brand”, Harvard Business Review, December.

Chrisodoulides, G. (2009), “Branding in the post-internet era”, Marketing Theory, 9, 141.

Deighton, J. and Kornfeld, L. (2009), “Interactivity's Unanticipated Consequences for Marketers and Marketing”, Journal of Interactive Marketing, 23, p. 4-10.

Fournier, S., Avery, J. (2011), “Uninvited brand”, Business Horizons, 54, 193—207.

Gensler, S, Völckner, F Thompkins, Y L, & Caroline Wiertz.(2013) Managing Brands in the Social Media Environment: Journal of Interactive Marketing: Vol 27, Issue 4

Hanna, R., Rohm, A. and Crittenden, V. (2011), “We’re all connected: the power of the social media ecosystem”, Business Horizons, 54, 265-273

Hoffman, D.L.  & T. P. Novak, (2012), ”Toward a Deeper Understanding of Social Media”, Journal of Interactive Marketing, 26, 69–70

Khong, K W, Onyemeh N C Chong, A Y L.(2013). BSEM estimation of network effect and customer orientation empowerment on trust in social media and network environment: Expert Systems with ApplicationsVolume 40, Issue 12, Pages 4858-4870

Krishnamurthy, S. and Kucuk, S.U. (2009), “Anti-branding on the internet”, Journal of Business Research, 62, 11919-1126

Papasolomou, I, Yioula Melanthiou, Y.(2012). Social Media: Marketing Public Relations´ New Best Friend: Journal of Promotion Management: Vol. 18 Issue 3

Pitt, L,   Berthon, P Watson, R Zinkhan, G.(2002). The Internet and the birth of real consumer power: Business Horizons: Vol, 45. Issue 4

6.1 Electronic sources

Brand, a type of product manufactured by a particular company under a particular name .[internet]. Available from: <http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/us/definition/american_english/brand> Oxford dictionaries [Accessed February 15 2014]

Carlsson, E .(2014). Hemligt Spel Bakom Ako kolans comeback.[internet]. Available from: http://www.expressen.se/nyheter/hemligt-spel-bakom-ako-kolans-comeback/ [Accessed 9 February 2014]

Google.se/search words, Abercrombie & Fitch [internet] Available from: https://www.google.se/#q=+Abercrombie+%26+Fitch&safe=off [Accessed 10 February 2014]

Delorian, J, Lisi, D.(2013). Abercrombie & Fitch Gets a Brand Readjustment #FitchTheHomelss.[internet]. Available from: http: <//www.youtube.com/watch?v=O95DBxnXiSo > [Accessed 6 February 2014]

MCCRUELTY: IM HATING IT.[internet]. Available from: http://www.mccruelty.com/ Publisher PETA: [Accessed 8 February 2014]

What would Evil Ronald Say…On Twitter.[internet]. Available from: <http://www.mccruelty.com/WhatWouldEvilRonaldSayContest.aspx>  Publisher PETA: [Accessed 8 February 2014]