01 Dec 2014
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Faculty Q&A: The New Brand Manager: You

Social media has given consumers a voice in the conversation—and given brands new insights, says Senior Lecturer Jill Avery
by April White

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Now that customers have more of a voice in the consumer-brand relationship, some brands have suffered loud criticism for recent business decisions. How can brands avoid that pitfall?

I’m not sure consumer criticism is always necessarily negative. Some recent examples come to mind—the Gap logo change, the Tropicana packaging change—that initially generated a lot of negative feedback from consumers. But actually, this criticism could be construed as a positive.

When consumers rebel against some kind of change in their brands, it is an indication that they care about that brand—that there’s something precious in the meaning of that brand that they’re willing to fight for. Imagine if I changed my brand logo and no one noticed. That might mean that no one cared enough about my brand. Now, that would be negative.

Of course, the bigger opportunity lies in mining your relationships with consumers upfront to avoid making bad decisions that incite criticism. I prefer a more collaborative, co-creative approach with consumers—understanding how they are likely to respond to key branding changes before they are made, rather than worrying about cleaning up the mess after they revolt.

How can brands best use social media to collaborate with consumers?

One way is to use social media as a sounding board in advance of major decisions. Social media makes it easy for us to identify customers who are highly involved in the brand. We could reach out to those customers as lead users and ask, “What do you think? How do you feel?”

We can also use it to conduct inexpensive and quick market research. And social media applications offer a treasure trove of information about consumer behavior.

What other benefits come from using social media to better understand the consumer-brand relationship?

My hope is that we can truly realize the promise of customer relationship management. We’ve been talking about customer relationship management since the 1990s. But it has not, for most B2C companies, become a reality.

If we can actively manage, nurture, and relate to each customer as an individual, that will increase the value of the relationship for both of us. Social media provides a way for us to communicate with our customers, rather than just talking to them, as most marketing communications do. Both physically and virtually, consumers are constantly signaling the type of relationship they are seeking with brands and companies and how they want to relate.

What happens when a brand misunderstands the consumer-brand relationship?

There are a lot of parallels to human relationships here. Imagine if you walked into my office, and I started treating you like we’ve been married for 20 years. You’d be totally freaking out. That would go against all the rules of a business relationship. Different types of relationships have different rules, and we expect each other to abide by them when we interact with each other.

The same thing applies with brands and their customers. If I assume that we’re best friends, and we’re actually adversaries, you’re going to perceive my customer relationship management behavior as overly pushy, overly aggressive, overly personal. And you’re going to move away from the brand.

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