Harnessing the Power of Social Media Marketing: How International Brand Managers can Leverage the Influence of Empowered Consumers without Losing Control

Written by a Master's Student of the Lund University School of Economics and Management

This is an extremely exciting time to be alive!

Well, let’s not get too carried away.  There are many reasons that we should all be happy to “be alive”, and I am by no means going to address them all in this post.  What I would like to talk about though is that there has never been a more exciting time to be “a consumer”, a word for which the definition is evolving at an exponential pace.  In fact, most of the words that are in use in Internet/Social Media Marketing seem to be constantly changing as both academics and practitioners find new contexts and paradigms in which words are used to explain phenomena that happen at the intersect of commerce, branding and the internet.  In this post I will explain how consumers have become “empowered” and that they now have much more impact on businesses than they ever did thanks to the role they play in social media.  I will also try to condense what has become an overwhelming toolkit of strategies and guidelines for the international brand manager who wants to take advantage of social media without being thrown into a destructive “shitstorm” (Peters et al). 

I will impart my dear reader with golden nuggets of information as follows; I will start with the evolution of the consumer, then, I will provide some great tips to help brand managers leverage social media, and finally, I will conclude by providing examples of “shitstorms” that have arisen when international brand managers have ignored the power that empowered consumers have on their businesses thanks to social media. 

The Evolution of the Empowered Consumer

The evolution of the “consumer” has begun prior to the dawn of the internet.  As Jerry Wind reminds us, the concept of consumerism underwent great change during the “historic shift from a product orientation to a market orientation” (p. 21).  He in fact argues that the “this shift in relationship between companies and consumers” of the internet age is an even more “fundamental” change than the changes brought on by this aforementioned shift (ibid, p. 21).  This argument really makes me scratch my head when I stop and think about the historical timeline involved.  The internet as it is being discussed in this context has influenced consumerism mainly in the past twenty years, while these other historic shifts have taken centuries to evolve! (Deighton and Kornfeld, Corrigan, 1997).  What is so exciting about this time is that we don’t even know the full potential of what has been unleashed in this dawn of the empowered consumer. Thurau, Hofacker and Bloching echo this excitement by telling us that “this dramatic growth of social media has impacted business processes and models in ways in which managers, but also marketing scholars, have only begun to understand” (p. 237).  Ok, this grandiose theory is interesting and exciting, but let’s look at some examples.

Examples of the Empowered Consumer

Wind provides the specific example of Wikipedia as one of the forces that has catalyzed the change of the consumer from a one-directional consuming entity into a multidirectional “co-creator” (p 21).  He goes onto to explain how demanding consumers have become using 5 words that begin the letter “C” (ibid).  He explains that this “new breed of consumers” expect 1) Customization 2) Communities 3) multiple Channels 4) Competitive value 5) Choice (ibid).  Labrecque et al help us understand how the empowered consumer has come to be by explaining that “with the introduction of the world wide web ordinary consumers gained access to vast amounts of information and developed opportunities to influence their own lives in the marketplace and beyond (p. 257).  What is interesting about this new paradigm of consumer power is not only the power of the individual, but the power of collective.  What Labrecque et al have come to call “crowd-based power” is an extremely potent force that gives empowered consumers the ability to “pool, mobilize, and structure resources in ways that benefit both individuals and the group” (p. 259).  Examples of such crowd sourcing phenomena can be found in community generated information (e.g., Wikipedia, SoundCloud),” crowdfunding (e.g., Kickstarter, Indiegogo; Seogand  Hyun 2009), crowd-sourcing (e.g., Amazon Mechanical Turk), crowd-selling (e.g., Etsy), or crowd-support in peer-to-peer problem solving (P3) communities.” (ibid, p. 259).

Condensing the Toolkit  


Now that we have touched on the new empowered consumer, I will (as promised) begin to impart some tools for the international brand manager.  In the previous paragraph we see where Wind has provided us with a detailed list of what this new consumer is like and what it demands.  However, Hoffman and Fodor provide their own list of “4 Cs”  (connections, creation, consumption, and control) which proves more useful for the international brand manager, as they are actually describe the key motivations of consumers for using social media rather than mere descriptions (p. 42).  Hoffman and Fodor go on to explain that understanding the motivations of the new empowered consumer is of paramount importance.  They argue that if you “start with consumer motivation rather than figuring out which social medium to use” the work of the international brand manager becomes less cumbersome and more “closely tied to online customer behavior” (ibid). 

Effective Metrics

This “motivation centered” insight that Hoffman and Fodor provide is a great tool for designing a social media strategy that has a chance to succeed, but there is more that needs to be done in order to see the attractive ROI that can be unlocked in social media marketing.  Multiple authors have contended that creating effective metrics that can measure effectiveness of social media activity are as important (if not more important) than the development of the strategy itself (Wind, Hoffman and Fodor, Peters et al). The key is that the brand manager must not get lost in the overwhelming waves of quantitative information that will become available (Peters et al). Wind emphasizes taking a hybrid approach that uses both “rigor” (quantitative scientifically valid methods to address marketing problems) and “relevance” (p. 22).  In this context, Wind refers to relevance as “a true focus on the evolving needs of managers and their organizations” (p. 22).  The most important aspect of what Wind is telling us here is that the needs of international brand managers are constantly evolving, and thus metrics need to be constantly revisited, tweaked and re-implemented.  The reward for having accurate metrics is that the international brand managers can hone in on the most impactful platforms (forums, blogs etc.) and individuals (bloggers, forum commentators etc.) and pinpoint their further marketing efforts to their various marketing objectives whether it be brand recognition, market research, consumer product insights (Hoffman and Fodor).

Moderate, but don't obliterate

Thurau, Hofacker, and Bloching have given us the easy to understand analogy of bowling vs. pinball to graphically explain the difference between traditional marketing and social media marketing.  In the social media frame, marketers can’t control each play of the game (hence the randomness of pinball) which means that they have to become accustomed to having less control than they would when simply throwing a ball towards some pins.  Thurau, Hofacker, and Bloching go on to explain that learning how to moderate the game, by “deftly handling the flippers” becomes essential (p. 238).  Let’s continue this analogy further to explain why brand managers need to learn how to balance moderation in order to promote user engagement without running the risk of losing complete control.  If the players of a pinball were allowed to reach their hands underneath the glass and place the pinball wherever they wanted it, would it be any fun?  No, and thus the moderators have to learn to keep their distance and let the social actors feel that their interaction is genuine and unadulterated by corporate objectives (Thurau, Hofacker, and Bloching).  At the same time, if nobody is standing at the machine pushing the buttons to move the flippers then there is absolutely no control and the ball will likely fall right through the middle, game over!  While there are many forms that “game over’ can take in social media marketing, one form that we will now discuss is what Peters et al refer to as “shitstorms”.

Shitstorms: Always Bring an Umbrella

When the online brand conversation begins to take place completely independent of the brand manager as an “actor”, the brand message begins to suffer (Peters et al).  If left unattended, this can eventually cause a “shitstorm” (ibid).  Peters et al go on to define “shitsorms” as “bad communication spiraling out of control of a focal brand”.  A classic example that they use to describe this situation involves a German Coffee company.  An image that ran on the company’s social media platform which featured “white farmer owners with colored people working for them” went viral not because of the popularity of the coffee, but due its unintended negative portrayal of racial stereotypes (ibid).  When the company tried to address the issue, it did not know how to reach out across the various platforms to which this negative media attention spread, as they only were able to reach out to their direct (and disengaged) follower base (ibid).  While Peters et al explain a shitstorm as something that can arise out of a lack of control of social media marketing, I feel that it is a great term to describe any major negative media that gains momentum online, regardless of the cause. 

Fitch the Homeless

In the case of Abercrombie and Fitch, it was a backlash to the CEO’s controversial remarks about their brand image (the CEO publicly stated that fat or “not-so-cool-kiids” don’t belong in their clothes) that caused a motivated blogger to attack the brand “ala shitstorm” (Levinson).  Despite a multimillion dollar annual spend on its social media presence, “Abercrombie and Fitch” was searched in Google (for a certain period of time) the blogger’s “Fitch the Homeless” campaign came up as one of the top hits (Pintusopon)!














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