Social. Media. Firestorm.
Three words, when assembled, that strike fear in the hearts of those who manage brands. And rightfully so. With all the negative attention, what marketer would actively choose to embrace that type of heat? No thanks! Conventional wisdom on how to deal with a social media firestorm suggests that managers should react fast, reply respectfully, and try to resolve the underlying issues in an attempt to extinguish the flames as fast as possible.
Appeasing brand critics looks like a safe thing to do. However, how many great brands have been built by always playing it safe?
We believe that appeasing brand critics as a one-size-fits-all firestorms solution is short-sighted. Our research shows that in today’s polarized and hyper-connected society, some social media firestorms actually provide opportunities to create brand value! To leverage these opportunities, marketers need to embrace the firestorm, fan its flames, and fight back.
The Foundations of a More Assertive Response to Social Media Firestorms
Further fanning the flames certainly sounds counter-intuitive to many marketers. After all, social media firestorms can tear down carefully built brand value within days. How can feeding the firestorm and antagonizing critics actually build brand value?
Our more assertive approach is rooted in three ideas:
1) There are different types of social media firestorms
In some instances, the company is singled out because it is objectively at fault (e.g. responsible for product failures, or unseemly poor service). In these cases, marketers should typically follow conventional wisdom as they plan their response strategy.
However, in other instances, the company is not objectively at fault and has been called out by consumers or activists for being associated with particular social issues or agendas (e.g. Nike with Colin Kaepernick).
These morally-focused situations, which are increasingly common and often sparked by a loud minority of critics, provide marketers with an opportunity to stand their ground in the midst of a firestorm.
2) Different consumers can hold opposing positions on social issues at the heart of morally-focused social media firestorms
If marketers sense that their customers, or at least many of them, are aligned with the company’s espoused position on the focal social issue, they can continue to advocate for that position, even if it means facing further criticism from opposing parties in a firestorm, or even losing a few unaligned followers.
Recently, fashion brand Diesel celebrated losing over 14,000 Instagram followers in response to its public support of Pride Week in Europe. In doing so, it was able to visibly assert the brand’s values for current and future customers.
3) Marketers can co-create brand stories with digitally-engaged consumers, including during social media firestorms
Contemporary brand thinking highlights the role of consumers in co-creating brand content and meanings online. Marketing practitioners and researchers alike typically associate brand co-creation with online communities, contests, and other everyday activities of a brand.
However, co-creation also occurs during times of turmoil. Harnessing this potential in the context of social media firestorms means that marketers can marshal together the storytelling efforts of many supportive stakeholders, rather than simply depending on its own singular voice as it navigates a firestorm.
Collectively, these ideas support the use of a new type of strategy in response to some social media firestorms. We see evidence of this escalation strategy being successfully applied in our netnographic study of a firestorm targeting Protein World, a UK-based nutrition and supplement company, and its ‘Are You Beach Body Ready’ advertising campaign.
This advert pretty much sums up everything that I despise about how we treat and value women's bodies. pic.twitter.com/PBZNyn8qop
— Hannah Atkinson (@hatkinson_) April 12, 2015
Escalating Social Media Firestorms for Brand Building Purposes
In our study, we find that Protein World unsuccessfully experimented with more conventional response strategies on Twitter before finally pursuing a more assertive, escalation strategy that involved embracing and even fueling the controversy through purposively antagonizing brand critics.
As the firestorm wound down, the brand claimed thousands of new social media followers, engaged brand supporters, increased media attention, and yielded – according to the company – over a million dollars in new revenue.
How did the brand orchestrate its unconventional response to the social media firestorm?
First, Protein World engaged in dual framing to accentuate the moral tensions between camps in the firestorm. It retweeted hostile and vulgar tweets from brand antagonists to alert brand supporters of the on-going attack and cast its opponents in a negative light.
Moreover, it infused ideological frames into its messaging. Through its replies on Twitter, Protein World presented itself as a defender of the brand’s (and their customers) ‘work hard’ values. Its critics, on the other hand, were framed as promulgators of an opposing ‘lazy crybaby’ ideology.
These tactics, which served to establish the brand as a moral protagonist, also had the effect of widening the ideological fault line between brand supporters and critics.
Second, Protein World engaged in and structured supporters’ counter attacks. The brand adopted incendiary and moralistic tones in messages that targeted brand critics. These messages both infuriated critics and rallied supporters who congratulated the brand on not caving in to criticism.
The brand also engaged in cultural jujitsu – the act of using critic’s attacks against them – by reworking critical hashtags to ones more supportive of its ideology. For example, charges that Protein World was #bodyshaming with its ads and tweets were countered with charges that brand critics were #fitshaming the model who was shown in the ads.
These messaging frames, tones, and hashtags provided rhetorical resources for brand supporters to use in distributed counter-attacks against brand critics engaged in the social media firestorm.
Interestingly, our analysis only showed widespread brand support emerging after Protein World adopted the escalation strategy. At the beginning of the social media controversy, during which the brand adopted more conventional approaches to mitigating the firestorm, the brand stood alone against its critics. But once Protein World started to fight back, support poured in.
Key Takeaways for Researchers
Our study offers some novel insights for researchers interested in (1) online firestorms and (2) branding in social media environments.
1. Insights on managing moral-based social media firestorms.
- While conventional advice suggests that managers should focus on mitigating firestorms, our study suggests that marketers can sometimes benefit from escalating moral-based firestorms.
- Prior research on managing firestorms provides limited insight into how companies can activate the support of a crowd. We demonstrate that marketers can motivate, structure, and coordinate brand support through their use of a variety of tactics (e.g. retweeting hostile message, establishing a moralistic framing of the controversy, etc.)
- Existing research on crises communications emphasizes the importance of framing the company’s role in the context of a crisis. Our research also underscores the importance of framing brand critics in these situations, as doing so can proactively reduce the legitimacy of the challenge that a company faces.
2. Insights on managing brands in social media environments.
- The working assumption of most online branding research is that negative consumer-generated content is bad for the brand since it dilutes the official brand story. As such, marketers should attempt to curtail negative messages by consumers. However, we suggest that negative consumer-generated content can actually be an important ingredient in successful online branding. Morally-based critiques can provide foils against which the brand can position its messages, which sharpens the brand story and conveys authenticity to its fans.
- An open question in contemporary branding research is what role marketers can play in facilitating and coordinating consumer-generated brand stories. Our research offers up one such role, that of the provocateur. It is a role that can enable brands to become a part of, and potentially drive, pressing cultural conversations that matter to consumers.
- Even as contemporary branding frameworks emphasize the multi-vocal and co-creative nature of brand stories, they remain committed to a rather static perspective of brand story co-creation that emerges over a long period of time. We highlight how brand stories emerge out of spontaneous, real-time, and dialogical interactions between the brand and its stakeholders. Furthermore, we explain one such process involved in the real-time dialogical branding, flyting, defined as a ritualized exchange of insults between two or more interlocutors.
Our research offers practitioners an alternative to appeasing brand critics during a social media firestorm. Granted, the escalation strategy we describe here might not be the best choice in all situations or for all companies. It does, however, invite marketers to rethink their branding frameworks for the social media age and how they can build authentic and resonant brands through dialogical interactions with stakeholders in real-time.
Read the original research article: Scholz, J. & Smith, A.N. (2019). Branding in the age of social media firestorms: how to create brand value by fighting back online. Journal of Marketing Management. https://doi.org/10.1080/0267257X.2019.1620839
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