Thanks (or no thanks) to social media, brand managers have lost the power to control the perception of their products through carefully orchestrated advertising campaigns.
These days, consumers are in command. With an angry tweet, a happy Facebook post, or a parody video on YouTube, they can take charge of public discussions about the brands they use. And while marketers have tried to take part, they've had to face the fact that social media platforms are primarily meant for conversations among consumers, not for one-way brand messages that feel like advertising.
“Your best defense is to have a connected group of very passionate supporters”
"The way brands came in to social media wasn't sensitive to the medium," says Jill Avery, a senior lecturer at Harvard Business School, who spent a decade managing brands for Gillette, Braun, Samuel Adams, and AT&T before pursuing her doctoral studies.
Brand managers entered the social media landscape with the same approach they used for television and radio advertising, she says. "With both of those media, we have an understood contract with consumers: In order for you to get free programming, you agree to be interrupted by commercial messages. Social media did not have that contract, so that when customers were interrupted by brands in social media, it felt abrupt, inappropriate, and out of place."
The power shift from marketers to consumers has created a landscape of what Avery calls "open source branding," wherein consumers not only discuss and disseminate branded content, they also create it. In the paper The Uninvited Brand, published in the journal Business Horizons in 2011, Avery and coauthor Susan Fournier map out the tumultuous social media landscape, detailing some of the best and worst strategies that brand managers have used in order to cope with it. Avery recently sat down with HBS Working Knowledge to discuss their findings.
According to the paper, consumers are operating in four concurrent Web-based eras: The Age of the Social Collective, The Age of Transparency, The Age of Criticism, and The Age of Parody. "We tried to extrapolate bigger themes that would be helpful to brand managers as they looked at this new culture," Avery says.
The Age of the Social Collective refers to the way that social media platforms foster an easy sense of camaraderie, through virtual communities of like-minded people. Sometimes the like-mindedness centers on a brand; think Facebook fan pages or Twitter rants. "Consumers have always had the ability to boycott brands—or to 'buy-cott' brands they like by buying and promoting them," Avery says. "They could picket or come together in collectives, but that was a lot harder in a non-virtual world. In the virtual world we can do that at the snap of a finger."
Ceding some control of the brand can be the best way for brand managers to deal with social collectives, Avery says. Loyal fans of a brand come across as authentic—because they are—and have proven very good at garnering more fans. For instance, the Facebook pages for both Nutella and Coca-Cola were created, unsolicited, by actual fans. In both cases, the companies have encouraged these users to continue managing the pages. Coke's Facebook page now sports some 80 million likes. Nutella has 23 million on its Facebook page.
If fan communities feel supported by their brand, they are that much more likely to come to its defense when attacked. "Your best defense against the haters is to have a connected group of very passionate supporters who will defend you," Avery tells brand managers. "If people start bashing a beloved brand, there is a ready group of organized consumers who swoop in and say, 'Don't beat up our brand!' Treating your communities well during good times can pay dividends when something bad pops up."
“Smart companies are monitoring Twitter for complaints and asking how can we intervene?”
Social collectiveness also lets marketers crowd-source brand messages from actual fans who already discuss the brand on social media. Today's fans can be proactive in delivering their ideas for new products to marketers. Fournier and Avery cite the example of Frito-Lay, which earns both positive publicity and product ideas with its annual "Do Us a Flavor" contest, which it hosts across several social media platforms. Last year's winner received $1 million for the idea of cheesy garlic bread-flavored chips, now sold by the company. This year's submissions include Smoky Brisket and Tzaziki.
The glut of easily accessible information on the Web has birthed The Age of Transparency, turning millions of consumers into amateur journalists. "It's something marketers really struggle with," Avery says. "Consumers are peeking behind the curtain and sometimes pulling the whole curtain down. They will expose you and send the information out to a wide network. And they're especially quick to respond to brand hypocrisy—when brands say one thing in their advertising, but do another in practice."
The hypocrisy issue is especially challenging for parent companies of multiple brands. Fournier and Avery cite the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty, Unilever's marketing effort focused on encouraging women to embrace their own bodies, curves and all. The campaign won two Cannes Lions Grand Prix awards.
But a few savvy customers quickly noted that Unilever also markets skin-lightening cream (Fair & Lovely) and diet aids (Slim Fast.) They quickly spread their observations across the Web. Adding insult to injury, a company employee revealed that the images in the "Real Beauty" campaign had been Photoshopped—information that also tore across the Web.
What should marketers do in situations like this? Maybe nothing. "One strategy that brand managers pursue is to just give in and let them talk," Avery says. "Part of open source branding is accepting that the company can't control the spread of information, and that inserting itself into the conversation may just inflame it and make it a bigger story."
Thanks to forums like Yelp.com and the ability to "like" a product with the click of a Facebook button, everyone's a critic in The Age of Criticism. The immediacy of today's consumer complaints represents a power shift between companies and consumers. The former are more pressured than ever to address the concerns of the latter. In the past, customers with an individual beef could write a letter or call customer service. Now they can tweet and reach an audience of thousands in seconds.
"Twitter has become the place to complain," Avery says. "If I'm sitting on the runway and I'm not allowed to get off the plane, I'll tweet my frustration, and my followers will start chiming in about how much they hate the airline, too, and then their followers will chime in, and so on. Smart companies are monitoring Twitter for complaints and asking, how can we quickly intervene to solve the problem? How can we reach the person in distress before this becomes an amplified problem?"
Case in point is Comcast, which employs social media managers to monitor Twitter for complaints about their cable service and who reach out to disgruntled customers directly in real time. There's also the @ComcastCares Twitter feed, which regularly issues updates about—and apologies for—widespread service glitches. Sorry goes a long way.
"The feeling that nobody's listening or responding is very frustrating," Avery says. "If social media managers can cut down a company's response time, then they can improve a brand's reputation by quickly turning negative events into positive ones."
Finally, there's The Age of Parody, wherein anyone with a YouTube account and a camera can create satirical spoofs of advertisements. It's another hard pill to swallow for traditional brand managers.
"Our brands are sacred to us," says Avery. "They are our assets and we take them very seriously. But in the real world, brands are playthings for consumers. Humor is a big part of social media culture. And brands are often used as vehicles to carry that humor."
Results can be calamitous for companies that don't anticipate mockery. Fournier and Avery write of a widely-publicized contest in which H.J. Heinz Company earnestly invited fans to create advertisements about its ketchup. Inevitably, the contest generated hundreds of videos deriding the contest; at least one of them involved a hot tub full of watered-down ketchup.
Once marketers accept that consumers inevitably will poke fun at their advertisements, they can create advertisements that lend themselves to lighthearted lampoons, such that the parody videos continue to remind consumers of the brand—in a way that doesn't hurt the brand. YouTube hosts oodles of videos spoofing MasterCard's "Priceless" campaign, for instance. And while the spoofs rarely mention MasterCard, the tagline "priceless" reminds viewers of the original ads. Infomercials for Snuggie ("the blanket with sleeves") were purposefully silly, inspiring parody videos from thousands of consumers which amplified the brand's message to create awareness.
The broad lesson of The Uninvited Brand may be that brand management and control are not synonymous. Avery recommends that brand managers consider working more closely with public relations managers, whose jobs have always involved reacting to situations outside of their control in real time.
"Lack of control is scary to brand managers," Avery says. "It means other people are setting the brand's agenda. I don't think the role of the brand manager will become obsolete, but it has to change. It's not enough just to live in brand strategy land. Brand managers have to get more tactical and understand living and responding in the now."
The Wii Fit parody is an example of a parody video that can hurt a brand.
Click to watch.
This Snuggie parody video actually helps the brand, Avery says.
Click to watch.