Letting the Masses Promote the Brand: Is it Worth the Risk?

It was hard for me to choose what to write about from this week’s readings because they touched on a lot of interesting and valuable topics! In the end, I’ve chosen this week’s readings from Eric Qualman’s Socialnomics. Qualman chose a great example to highlight in chapter four, as he explores the successful use of social media in Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign. Not only did Obama’s campaign actively use social media, but it embraced it, allowing social media to take the campaign further than it would have otherwise been able to go.

During the 2008 election season, it was apparent to me that Obama’s campaign readily took advantage of social media. What I did not consciously realize, though, was the extent to which the campaign built a grassroots following, and allowed that community to do some of the heavy lifting for it. Qualman uses the example of the parody on the well-known Budweiser “Whassup” commercials.

Essentially, the campaign allowed someone on the outside to “take ownership of the brand and promote it” (p. 68). The parody was a wild success and received millions of views. What I find striking about this is how beautifully it worked for the campaign, but also how risky this type of thing is. It could quickly go awry if the party doing the promoting does so in a distasteful or offensive way. To successfully leverage an online community in this way, communicators must be able to stay on top of what’s happening with their brand, and react swiftly and decisively when needed to avert crisis. Clearly, the Obama campaign of 2008 was able to do this, and it paid off—the risk was well worth it.

I have to believe, though, that the risk is not worth it for some brands, and that’s why some are hesitant to fully embrace social media to this extent. Maybe I’m thinking about this in a limited way, but it seems that allowing an online community to take some brand ownership may only work well for certain types of brands and in certain industries. The Obama campaign proved that it works for promoting a person or beliefs, but how well would this work for a product? (I’m having a hard time thinking of a parallel example for a product.) In the end, I think companies and organizations need to weigh their options: maintain near complete control of their message and brand, or relinquish some of that control and hope it pays off.

Posted on October 7, 2012, in Social Media, Society. Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. I enjoyed reading your post. I follow what you are saying about social media being a somewhat risky means to promote a brand–or a person. Just as social media really helps some politicians, it may also really help some brands. But is the oppoite true? If a person or brand becomes widely unpopular on Facebook or other social media, will it have a negative impact? Probably so.

  2. Lana, I wonder if it is that certain companies don’t venture into social media due to the risk or if it is rather due to their unfamiliarity with it? Seeing the free public relations that come along with social media, I can’t imagine most companies avoiding it out of fear of a couple negative comments. But, that said, I am only going of my personal feeling here!! I agree with you and Paul completely though, the possibility for negative impact is certainly there.

    • I agree with both of you, JoDee and Paul, that social media can also have negative impact. But then, that way, the company would also have the chance to be transparent about it, as well as honest. That would give them then the opportunity to really interact with the customer and turn the negative into a positive impact by genuinely trying to correct any mistakes etc. Since we all make mistakes, but we are here to learn out of them, it seems to be immensely valuable if the company takes this challenge and addresses any concerns or issues in such a way to make the product and with it the relationship to the customer better and stronger.

  3. If we are talking about a Presidential campaign building a grassroots following, we must mention Howard Dean, who was the first to have a blog: “It was the first time the internet had been used to amass support for a presidential candidate, and the outpouring of antiwar fervor for Dean’s campaign threw the Washington establishment in to a tailspin” (Frank at http://dissidentvoice.org/2007/11/remembering-howard-deans-2004-campaign/)

    See also this archived piece from Wired: http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/12.01/dean.html and, more importantly, thie report on the use of blogs in the 2004 election: http://www.campaignsonline.org/reports/blog.pdf.

    In fact, YouTube wasn’t even around in the 2004 election and it’s quite difficult to image the world without YouTube, right? 🙂

  4. There’s a lot of leeway for a political figure or someone that is famous to be spoofed (positively or negatively), but you make a good point about who this kind of viral marketing might work for other mainstream products.

    Can you imagine Disney or Apple letting people run with their brand? I’m sure the lawyers would descend like a plague of locusts.

    Since traditional brands guard their brands so fiercely, are they really going to be able to figure out how to operate successfully in this new world?

    Back to Obama, if his campaign had hated the ads, is there anything they could have done to stop them? What are all of the attack ad producers of the world going to do if the internet starts crowdsourcing this stuff for free? More Americans being put out of work ; )

    • Speaking of Disney…
      It is not uncommon for teachers to take a cartoon image, enlarge it, and repurpose it for classroom decoration or to be incorporated into a bulletin board’s message. Years ago, I had taken images of Mickey Mouse reading and writing and enlarged them for my English classroom. It seemed to me that Mickey wouldn’t mind promoting education.
      Well, it’s not that simple. It turns out that Disney has sued public schools over the unlicensed use of their characters. Teachers in school districts all over were told to take down any unlicensed Disney imagery.
      And that was simply “posting” the art on a classroom wall.

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