New research implies social media may be “killing” rather than building FMCG brands

Facebook Burnout by mkhmarketing, Flickr

In February this year the title of a short article in Forbes asked the provocative question “Can social media be killing brands?”.

The article reported on the preliminary findings of a ten-year study by two American academics into the use of social media by US FMCG brands and its impact on their relationships with consumers.

It concluded that social media “may actually be counterproductive in terms of building brand value and brand relationships”.  In a nutshell, the use of social media may be damaging rather than improving the health of FMCG brands.

Three reasons to pay attention

Given the seismic shift towards social media by advertisers and agencies alike, and the constant – and seemingly overwhelming – arguments for embracing all things social, it would be easy to simply dismiss this finding as ivory tower thinking; disconnected from real world marketing and based on the type of small scale data typical of academic studies.

However, three factors indicate that it should be given more credence.

First, the researchers are professors at one of the United States’ preeminent marketing and communications colleges, Northwestern University; probably best known to non-American marketers as Philip Kotler’s home ground.

More notable is that one of them is Don Schultz, the author of some 13 marketing texts including the seminal The New Marketing Paradigm: Integrated Marketing Communications and referred to by many as “the father of integrated marketing”.  With 15 years in advertising prior to entering academia, Schultz is a heavy-weight, hands-on player.

Second, the data being analysed is unusually robust.  It consists of “1,100,000+ online questionnaire responses , covering 73 FMCG categories and 1,500+ individual brands” collected amongst social media users on an ongoing basis between 2002 and 2012.  In addition, the database incorporates the influence of other external-to-store media and in-store promotions, as well as whether respondents give or get advice from others regarding brands.

Thirdly, Schultz is being cautious with the release of findings.  With a reputation to protect, and probably wary of the work being attacked by social media acolytes, he is progressively distributing his conclusions in instalments as the database is further analysed.  In short, he is clearly not looking for quick ‘fame’ through being deliberately contentious.

Initial analyses hypothesise social media is commoditising brands

One of these instalments, entitled “Social Media – Friend or Foe?”, appeared in the May edition of Admap.  In it Schultz expands on one of the study’s core findings regarding changes in consumer preferences for the brands in each of the categories covered.  In every category, over a period that social media use by consumers and brands grew exponentially, the fastest growing response to the query ‘Which is your preferred brand’ was in fact ‘No Brand Preference’.  This accounted “for roughly 30-35% of all responses in almost all categories”, meaning that “typical brands have preference rates in the single digits”.

While not (yet) claiming causality, Schultz is pointing to a strong correlation between heavy social media usage and low brand preference.  Why this may be the case is still to be defined.  But one of the hypotheses being explored is that rather than “helping to build brand loyalty and preference” social media is “simply commoditising the brand through broad-scale information access and distribution”.

One aspect of this may be the level of detail brands have been sharing about themselves and the businesses behind them.  Without having a distinctive story to tell, the more they say the more the brands in any given category may be sounding the same to their customers.  (For a viewpoint on how to address this issue see the post Don’t just create a brand positioning, create a brand story).

Another reason why brands may be losing their sense of differentiation is the attempt to engage people with consumer interest-led (rather than brand-led) content – a widely recommended principle of social media marketing.

For example, soft drink and snack brands targeting younger consumers have commonly attached themselves in some way to popular music.   Tactics such as free downloads, artist and event sponsorships, and crowdsourced and celebrity playlists, have proliferated to the point that many brands have blurred together.  (This is supported by a 2012 study of the Australian youth market that found “Only 15% of 16-30s surveyed could recall a brand communication that resonated with them, down from 27% two years earlier”).

The takeout for marketers

While noting there is a lot more analysis still to be done, Schultz’s interim advice for FMCG marketers is:

“…to take a longer view, bringing in both the good and the bad of social media.  That would seem much better than what seems to be happening today…i.e. racing off willy-nilly to build instant social media strategies and then re-allocating resources to support those concepts and approaches.

So, while social media may be interesting, involving and, in some cases, engaging, the value of the tools based on this consumer research, is still to be proven.

Trial and test, rather than wholesale conversion, may be the best approach for brands in social media now and for the immediate future”.

Image Credit: mkhmarketing

:Espied | Espied posts are selected news items of particular relevance to brand management today.

Our blog aims to provide thoughts and insights into brand strategy, brand management and brand building for navigating a changing world.

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3 thoughts on “New research implies social media may be “killing” rather than building FMCG brands

  1. Pingback: New research implies social media may be “killing” rather than building FMCG brands | Brand Truth – Brand Strategy Consulting, Melbourne | MOVING MARKETING

  2. Very interesting post and article, intrigued to dig into the full paper! I can envisage how brands being too consumer driven in their content creation could lead to diluted recognition for an FMCG brand – your audience ultimately moving from one competitor to the next – low engagement / high return junkies hooked on consumer driven content with the only thing that matters being who currently has ‘the best stuff’ – does that mean the content production houses are ultimately going to be the dealers?! Scary…

    • Thanks for your comments Mike. Certainly the game will be about “the best” content. But if it just becomes an auction to secure what everyone can also get, then any brand benefit will be temporary. I think brands owners will need to think about content in the same way as advertising – looking for distinct points of view and ways of expressing them. They need to take ownership of a particular story, otherwise all they’ll have is high cost, populist attention getting grabs with no lasting effect.

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