Social Networking Sites and Brands

In a time when brands compete more fiercely than ever for customer loyalty, the way to success is a customer-centric approach.

This has two meanings: firstly, the core brand values, the brand identity and communications must portray an image fully integrated with the experience of the product and confirmed by it. For instance, Apple does this very well. The brand is all about innovation, about creating products that empower consumers giving them the freedom to be creative, original and individual. Everything -from the brand name, Apple logo and the promotional campaigns to the inspiring figure of Steve Jobs -makes customers feel special, smart, individualistic, and part of a closely knit community. The user experience fully supports Apple’s brand image. The gorgeous, user friendly products, deliver a superior experience creating an honest, reliable image for the brand and long term customer loyalty.

Secondly, while integration between brand image and brand experience is an essential part of the customer-centric approach, it can only be successful if brands build up an active communication structure with customers. Traditionally, brands use mass communication tools such as advertising to create awareness and transmit brand messages. However with the digital sphere growing fast, they have taken various approaches to make the brand experience more personal for customers. For instance, Oxo changed its traditional soap-opera type advertising portraying the iconic Oxo family into an engaging, interactive experience where people can post their own “Oxo family experiences” on the Oxo website becoming part of the brand. Oxo’s current motto is “every family is an Oxo family”. To see this transformation view the current Oxo Factor Competition here.

Nothing though has the enormous scope of talking to a massive, highly targeted customer base, in an unprecedented personal manner like social networking sites. The phenomenon of social marketing has brought an entirely new dimension to communications. Facebook, MySpace and Twitter (the largest social networking sites) bring together millions of people around the world sharing just about anything, including their experiences with products and brands. Although still uncharted territory, brands attempt to engage their customers through social networking sites building awareness, introducing new products and special events and addressing customer concerns on an individual basis. Such initiatives “humanize” brands as they interact directly with their target markets. Furthermore, by addressing consumers at the individual level, brands now have the opportunity to influence their experiences and inspire positive word-of-mouth, “the most trusted form of advertising” according to the survey conducted by Nielson Online.

Browsing through the Facebook pages of Jeep, Coke and Nike one begins to wonder whether social marketing is likely to become the main way to build brand loyalty. The essence of such sites is not just the free exchange of ideas but also the virtual associations or “groups” that have the potential to create strong brand communities. It is clear that the members of the Jeep group are sharing a love for the brand, a sense of moral responsibility for the other members (for instance exchanging tips on how to use the brand) and have their own “rituals” that sets them apart from users of other brands. Such groups are easily accessible by anyone and members can invite other people to join, exposing non-users to the brand and encouraging them to become loyal users through the positive word-of-mouth generated by such communities. Some brands have already realized the potential of social network communities: Coca-Cola, the top ranking brand on Facebook’s Fan pages with 1.8m fans masterfully uses applications such as 'Facial Profiler', aiming to find people’s online “evil twin” or lookalike and “Alter ego” that allows users to create their avatar based on their photo. Such applications generate awareness, build brand associations and attract people to the brand’s Facebook page.

Brands also use social networking sites to transform their deeper connection with the target market into sales. For example, Dell used @DellOutlet, one of its Twitter accounts to generate an increase in sales of $2m. The site focused on various forms of saving, special offers and discounts is an excellent example of successful customer engagement and sales generation through a networking site.

The potential scope of social networking sites with regards to brands is obvious but benefiting from the direct, multifaceted ways of communication with the target audience can also backfire. Skittles decided to transform their home page into a live feed from Twitter. However as the brand did not previously focus on building its relationship with the target market it was subjected to a wave of unfavorable tweet comments with a negative impact for its image. Skittle’s example demonstrates that building a presence on social networking sites requires a deeper understanding of this level of communication.

Can we trust brain training games?

You must have heard of the latest hype about brain training games. The market for cognitive training has lately doubled year on year, exploiting people’s universal desire to maintain their youth and attraction to starts like Nicole Kidman endorsing these games.

This expansion was mostly driven by the popularity of Nintendo’s Brain Age but a quick search has uncovered a lot more programs proliferating on the back of its success, ranging from seniors’ to children’s, some more entertaining than others. “Supermind”, “Cortex Sport”, “Brain Strainer” and “Do the Twist” are some of the ones I came across.

All these games base their claims on the fact that exercising your brain is proven to be useful both to elderly people, people recovering from brain damage as well as children with mental disabilities. However, whether they can actually deliver any significant, long lasting effect of this sort is by no means a certain fact.

As I have not tried Brain Age myself, I searched for others’ experiences of the game. Kaspar Mossman, a Ph.D. candidate in biophysics at the University of California played it and published his observations in American Scientist. He found the game entertaining, although after a few levels, he noticed shortcuts to trick Dr. Kawashima (the neuroscientist from Tohoku University in Japan playing the instructor in the game) and improve his brain age. Also, he could not assess the level of improvement resulted from playing. Despite these shortcomings, he gave the game some credit as he was able to memorize a phone number which he could not do prior to the training.

You could think this is proof of the benefits of spending £100 on a game that promises to train your mind but this does not demonstrate that it is better than playing chess, watching a documentary or playing Sudoku, all free activities. In fact although scientists have tested this on various groups of people using different approaches, there is no conclusive evidence that the improvements from playing brain training games have superior, long lasting effects on brain functions. I hope you found this article useful and consider these games from all points of view before parting with your money.

For some more information you can check out the articles below featuring some of the scientific attempts at testing the validity of brain training games:

Is “local” the new “global”?

Browsing the Brand Republic website I came across an interesting article about Starbucks. In the US, Starbucks are experimenting with a new café format. The idea is to remove most branding elements from selected cafes in an effort to become part of the fabric of local communities.

This initiative has stirred considerable controversy about the ethics of “disguising” a global brand in order to overcome customers’ negative image of international corporations and to build stronger relationships with the members of local communities who prefer local businesses and produce. Before you make up your mind about how you would feel about such a scheme being introduced in the UK lets cast a glance at what Starbucks stands for and what it represents to us.

Starbucks started off in Seattle as a small local coffee house. Since the 1970s the brand experienced phenomenal expansion now having a presence in 49 countries which makes it the largest coffeehouse in the world. The secret of its success? Starbucks took the experience of coffee to a whole new level transforming coffee from a functional product to a luxury treat worthy of a superior experience. The brand built its image on the unique experience created from the combination of its innovative and high quality range of coffees and the atmosphere that invites you to take a break from your hectic life, relax and treat yourself. Everything in a Starbucks coffeehouse, from the friendly baristas, the indulgent drinks and cakes to the comfy, relaxing sofas and the soft music speaks of comfort and sophistication, an escape to an oasis of peace and relaxation.

Maintaining these high standards in each and every coffee shop from the Forbidden City in China to Bucharest to New York but slightly adapting the product offering according to local taste has fuelled Starbucks’ massive expansion. The brand became associated with numerous environmental and philanthropic causes, supporting local communities and suppliers. It has gained its customers’ trust and loyalty so much so that even during this global recession, people still indulge in their favourite coffee treat although they refrain from buying a new car or going on an expensive holiday.

However, the brand’s growth seems to threaten its acceptance into local communities as people feel that global giants like Starbucks are a menace to their local culture as well as smaller businesses. Furthermore, the question whether Starbucks tries to cheat its way into the heart of local neighbourhoods makes one wonder how far would the brand go in order to keep profits high and whether its values are just driven by business interests rather than genuine care for the causes it supports.

See here to a sample of customer interviews on this topic that may be of interest.

Brands and us

Peter Thomas, an insurance worker from Brighton recently changed his name to Honey Monster officialising his love and life long passion for Sugar Puffs! And the first thing he did after becoming Mr. Monster? He acquired a credit card with his new name on it and purchased 20 boxes of his favourite treat. (The full story is available here)
I wonder what people who bought insurance from Peter…emm…Honey think of their purchases now and secondly is Honey’s story a sign that brands are increasingly becoming part of who we are?

Probably the most fundamental finding of marketing today is that people don’t choose brands purely on rational grounds but also based on their emotional connection with the brands. The reason for this is that unlike past theories that classified humans as purely rational creatures, recent breakthroughs in neuroscience have demonstrated that we are also instinctively motivated in our decisions by our emotions. Our experiences are “stored” in our long term memory through emotions which give them significance and act as markers (somatic markers). With regards to brands, these emotional markers can be stimulated by brand associations, which is the reason some brands generate intuitive and long lasting favourable reactions from their target market. Furthermore as people invest time and cognitive energy in making their choices, brands can also be seen as an extension of the buyers’ identity.

Therefore by using their symbolic significance people perceive brands as a way to construct and express their personal identity, their place in society and their relationship with their piers. It is important to stress that every one of us perceives the brand symbols in a personal distinctive way and therefore uses them in a unique way.
For instance owning a designer handbag can send the message that the person wearing it is fashionable, sophisticated and quite well off. It gives the wearer confidence and makes them feel successful.

The most successful brands today have not only realised this but have masterfully addressed their customers’ emotions by becoming as Andrew Doyle (the chairman of the leading design consultancy Holmes & Marchant) described them –“precious brands with unlimited loyalty”. Cadbury –the leader in the UK confectionary market is an excellent example of how brand –customer communication has changed from a one way presentation of functional benefits to an interactive representation of customer values. Today Cadbury’s advertising has almost nothing to do with chocolate –I’m sure everyone has seen the Gorilla ad on the Phil Collins music and the latest Eyebrows ad.

Cadbury is all about providing entertainment and delight to the customers and by abandoning traditional communication approaches it deepens its relationship with the customers. Like Laurence Green the planning director of Fallon, the multi award winning agency responsible for the Gorilla ad says: "Chocolate is about joy and pleasure. For years Cadbury has told us that it was generous, through the glass and a half strap line. We thought, don't tell us how generous you are; show us. Don't tell us about joy; show us joy."

I will stop my discussion of Cadbury here and for those of you who wish to (re-)view these funny ads visit the Cadbury website. An important point which this example shows us is that brands use their symbolism to build an entire story around them and have an individual style. For instance Innocent –our favorite smoothie brand is renowned for its all natural ingredients and its connection to nature. Still a relatively small business it portrays quality and care for the customer. Through its own story and distinctive style Innocent tells a story about the customer –“I care about what I eat and drink and I care about the environment”.
Some brands like Muller and Heinz even have their own rituals. I’m sure many of us lick the lid of the Muller yogurt and shake the bottle of ketchup before spreading it over those nice oven chips!

Brand symbolism creates individual communities and can become a sign of worship. Nike is the perfect example for this: a study of 300 teenagers has proven that the most important object in their lives is trainers. Does this make Niketown a “sacred” place of worship that provides teenagers with a way to express themselves and find their place in society?

The relationship between brands and customers seems to become deeper as marketers shape their brand’s identity on core consumer values in increasingly inventive ways. It seems that despite consumer empowerment determined by more choice and information availability by taping into unconscious instinctive patterns of meaning (somatic markers) brands build unconscious long lasting relationships with their customers. I wonder how this balance of power will evolve in the future –maybe a topic for a future post… :)


“Advertising: Spot the link between a gorilla and chocolate”,

“Meet the Honey Monster”,

“Precious brands: loyalty unlimited”, Admap Magazine (available at

Online - leader or follower?

To mark the beginning of my blog I decided to introduce a currently relevant subject: the importance of online as a communications medium and its influence on brand building. My question is does the future of brands lie online or will offline communication channels still play the dominant part in brand building?
What are the particular benefits of online? Probably the main attraction for companies adopting this medium is cost as online campaigns have the potential to generate high financial returns from a relatively small investment. Furthermore, the interaction potential of digital brings brands closer to their customers, communicating directly to them and creating a uniquely interactive and far more intimate experience that offline media can. Online marketing represents a direct path to learning valuable information about the target market and to empower the consumer by participating in initiatives such as content creation (e.g. customer reviews).
In my research I came across numerous cases in which online was the main communications medium, secondarily supported by offline initiatives. To offer you an example, in 2005 in Canada Monster was loosing ground to competitors despite being a technology leader in its field. Nonetheless Monster realised through customer research that people placed high significance on their relationship with their boss and that this was one of the main factors affecting job satisfaction. This led to a brilliant idea –that of introducing a “rate your boss” application on the website.
Through an online viral campaign people could rate their boss based on various categories of characteristics and could invite others to rate their own bosses. People who scored low were encouraged to look for a new job while the names of the best bosses nominated the best in Canada were published in leading publications and on the radio. The campaign was supported by TV, print and radio advertising however offline channels played a supportive role. The online campaign had a huge success generating much traffic to the Monster website while sales rose by 61% in that year alone!

Could the success of Monster’s (and other brands’) online initiative be an indication that the future of brands is likely to be online or does it demonstrate that offline activities will continue to have a significant impact on brand building?

Note: My main sources of inspiration for this post were:
“Using online as a leading medium” by Peter Field,
“ad:tech New York: the digital strategies of Obama, Lenova, Shreddies, Capri Sun, Luis Vuitton and IBM” by Geoffrey Precourt
“ –Monster Success” by Bos Agency
All available from –Digital

Further case studies are available on WARC; however access to this service is not free.



Welcome to my marketing blog! I’m Cristina and with this blog I aim to create a place where people can express their opinions about a variety of marketing subjects and learn what others think of topics such as brand revitalisation, the latest marketing news and the most influential viral campaigns. The main inspiration for these themes will come from my research on various marketing sources including WARC ( and publications such as Marketing Week. However feel free to propose other subjects (as long as they are marketing related) –variety is welcomed!
Marketing is such a fascinating phenomenon as it is rooted in people’s understanding of the world and their emotions, creating innovative pieces of communication which influence people’s perceptions, shaping their reality. It is all about who we are and who we will become which is the reason why I decided to create this blog. I hope you will find the topics interesting and I am looking forward to hearing your views.