Are Brand Managers in Danger of Losing Control of Their Brands?


This morning, a post was forwarded by a friend to my Facebook page; it was from a Vijeth Shetty who has created a page entitled ‘Agarwal Non-Movers.’ On this page, he has launched a scathing attack on Agarwal Movers & Packers for screwing up the transfer of his household goods and for not responding to his plaints. The post is now circulating all over Facebook. Frankly, it can do incalculable damage to the reputation of Agarwal Packers & Movers. I mean, after reading about Shetty’s experience, even I would think twice before engaging Agarwal Movers & Packers. And it is likely that I will warn my friends from using their services.

I remember that a couple of years ago, a disgruntled Vodaphone user had created an anti-Vodaphone page. The page became so popular that Vodaphone threatened legal action against the user. I am not sure how that episode ended.

None of us need to be told that social media has grown at a phenomenal rate. For marketers, one of the consequences of this rapid growth is that consumers now have the power to make or, if not break, inflict a lot of harm to brands.

Slowly but surely, brand managers are losing the power to manage the perception of their brands through one-way communication. Increasingly, consumers are gaining command. An angry tweet, a positive Facebook post, or a parody video on YouTube, can take charge of public discussions about a particular brand.  Of course, marketers have realised the power of such discussions. However, many still haven’t grasped the fact that social media platforms are primarily meant for conversations among consumers, not for one-way brand messages that feel like advertising.

In an article entitled ‘A Brand Manager’s Guide to Losing Control,’ Carmen Noble of HBS Working Knowledge outlines the learnings from a paper -‘The Uninvited Brand’ – written by Jill Avery and Susan Fournier. In their paper, the two authors highlight that consumers today 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. You can read the Carmen Noble article here.

Rather than précis the article, I am reproducing most of it: ‘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.

Brand managers should consider ceding some control of their brands to deal with social collectives. 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.”


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 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.”’

Avery and Fournier’s paper must be studied by all brand managers because of the serious lessons that they must draw from it.

Genuine consumers provide genuine feedback – good or bad. The problem with the online medium is that it can allow for fraudulent attacks that can seriously harm a brand or company’s reputation. These attacks could be from competitors, disgruntled employees or from extortionists. And these attacks can take many forms; in some cases the attack may reach a very large population.

What does a brand do in such a case? This is a dilemma that may confront brand managers and they must give serious thought to how to deal with such situations. Studying the attacker/s and understanding their modus operandi is important. If there is some proof of deliberate malice, legal action must also be considered.

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This article was written by andy

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