Crowd control: brand owners are using social networking to give consumers power

It’s easy to see social media as a form of free advertising, a way for brand owners and retailers to broadcast their good points to the world without having to pay a middle man in the form

of a newspaper, TV station or billboard company.

It’s also easy to forget the conversation bit of being “part of the conversation”, the clichéd phrase that social media advocates tend to use to big up the digital universe.

Increasing numbers of drinks industry marketing people are embracing the fact that a conversation isn’t a conversation at all if there’s only one side doing the talking, and using the liberating communications plat- forms of Twitter and Facebook – other forms of social media are available – to let consumers do the talking.

Moreover, they’re listening to and acting on what they’re saying. It’s called crowd- sourcing, literally inviting the rule of the mob to determine to some small or large extent decisions over what products should be called, taste of, look like and contain.

At the very base level, crowd-sourcing makes a lot of sense. If your consumers have indicated what they’d like you to do then you might safely assume that will translate into sales.

Much of this activity so far has the whiff of gimmickry, but it seems certain to become an increasing factor in the way FMCG companies do business in years to come.

It also means more traditional forms of market research, such as focus groups or having people stand in the streets with clip- boards to annoy shoppers who are minding their own business, could be on the way out.

Alex Myers, managing director of Manifest London, which handles PR for Brewdog, says: “You don’t need focus groups any more. The traditional idea of PR is to tell people what you’re doing, but you

can also let them tell you what you should be doing. The story of Brewdog is a collective story.”

Brewdog has won both admirers and detractors for the way it goes about its marketing, but whichever camp you’re in there’s no denying it’s often ahead of the curve.

It began crowd-sourcing as long ago as 2009, using a series of video blogs to ask consumers to vote on a new beer, dictating the style, malt combination and abv, types of hops, special brewing processes and additional ingredients, and the name and packaging.

Since then it’s crowd-sourced everything from T-shirt designs to investors for its Equity For Punks share offer.

Brewdog isn’t the only beer to have been produced through crowd-sourcing. Australian wine producer Casella, the company behind Yellowtail, did so for Arvo, its first beer launch in its native Australia.

The beer was created through what was called the Perfect Lager Project, using an iPhone app to record the beer-drinking habits of 7,000 members of the public, including such information as the time of day, the weather, beer temperature, the size of the social group the consumer was drinking in, and what beer brand was being imbibed, rated against the question “how perfect is this moment?”.

With a bit of PR gloss the results were processed by the brewing team to produce two potentially “perfect lagers”.

It then put 24-bottle cases and six-packs on the market, each containing half a case of each lager, leaving the final decision to a consumer vote, the results of which are not yet in.

On one level, crowd-sourcing is simply an extension of market research that has previously been done in other ways. The task of collecting opinion is done through a publicly-accessible digital platform rather than through the mediated forum of an interview with a researcher.

But the difference has as much to do with the substance of the information gathered as with the format it’s gathered in.

The level of participation with social media and the language used in doing so tends to the unequivocal. There’s little emotional room for “don’t know”, “neither agree nor disagree” or “none of the above” in a media that is packed with polarised love and hate opinions helped on their way by liberal sprinklings of OMGs and LOLs.

Twitter in particular doesn’t allow for the reasoned, in-depth analysis of a controlled interview as users struggle to cram their views into a 140-word soundbite.

Participation also suggests a level of commitment to the brand already from the consumer as Facebook fan or Twitter follower. It’s one thing to understand the views of your existing consumers, but quite another to gain insight into the thoughts of the mil- lions of people who aren’t yet consumers of your product but who you’d like to be.

Myers argues that brand owners need to get to grips with what they want to achieve and who they want to reach before they voy- age into the digital landscape.

“Ninety-nine per cent of people are doing a really bad job on social media,” he says. “Just having a Facebook page is not a

strategy. The strategy is ‘here’s what we’re going to do and these are the tools we’re going to use to achieve it’.”

Crowd-sourcing has become a favourite of spirits marketers, particularly at the colourful, youth-adult end of the market where it’s easier to play with the character of the product and where the target audience is more social media-savvy.

Maxxium UK used interaction with its 440,000-strong Facebook community for its Sourz brand to create a limited-edition exclusive for Asda, and RTD brand VK has asked consumers to submit ideas for a new flavour, three of which have been chosen to be put to a vote on an on-trade tasting tour of the UK.

Sourz’s Facebook fans chose Spirited Mango with 54% of the vote over Melon and Orange flavours, then went on to choose between a number of bottle designs.

While the views of the masses dictated the decision, the crowd-sourcing exercise still relied on traditional marketing methods to make it stand up – with displays, neck hangers and in-store advertising used to drive consumers to Facebook to take part.

Sourz has also used Facebook for a crowd vote on new packaging for its winter limited- edition and to give the Apple Bite variety of its Fuzionz RTD its name.

Sourz marketing controller Eileen Livingstone says: “For us, it’s about engagement – we have a huge fanbase on Facebook and it’s growing every single day. But you still can’t afford to see it as the be-all and end-all.

“It can give you insight into the minds of your consumers but it doesn’t necessarily give you the level of expertise in flavour trends around the world that other forms of research can. We still do huge amounts of research outside of social media when we’re developing a product.

“But it’s certainly an enhancement to what we do and allows the brand to be relevant to its target audience.”

More traditional forms of product research still dominate, especially for Maxxium’s brands that have older consumer profiles.

“We haven’t used focus groups on Sourz but we do on other brands,” says Livingstone. “But it’s always in conjunction with a number of other ways of collating consumer feedback.

“Though Facebook and other social media are important you don’t yet get the depth of insight that you might get from the conversations you would have in a focus group, where you can talk to a smaller number of people but in much greater depth.”

Simon Green, marketing director at VK firm Global Brands, says there’s only so much to be gained from any sort of pre- launch research.

“We’ve never been about sitting in a room behind two-way mirror to watch consumers discussing a product anyway,” says Green.

“We’ve always preferred taking a product out to market to test consumer reaction in a real sales environment, and having conversations with them about the flavours and design out in the market. It’s a more natural way to do things with a brand such as VK.”

The danger of unfiltered crowd-sourcing influence is clear from the list of consumer suggestions for new flavours that VK opted not to put out to a wider vote.

Carrot Cake, Pomegranate & Spearmint, Rhubarb & Custard, Candyfloss and Black Coffee were rejected, as were more abstract suggestions such as pink, clear and rainbow, which would have caused some head- scratching in the NPD lab.

As that list shows, brand owners need to keep considerable control over such activities, despite the PR spin around consumer empowerment.

Even the self-styled beer marketing mavericks at Brewdog usually approach crowd-sourcing by way of refined multiple choice questions.

The VK exercise is still taking place, and all we know to date is that flavour X is coloured pink, flavour Y black and flavour Z green – and that Z is in the lead.

The person who originally created the eventual winner will have their face on the bottle on launch in time for Freshers’ Week and get a year’s supply of product.

Both Sourz and VK point to the 18-24 demographic as perfect for crowd-sourcing, but the jury’s out on whether it’s a serious and fundamental shift in how brands approach product development or a bit of fun to generate consumer engagement.

“It’s important now and it will be increasingly so,” says Green at Global Brands. “But a bit of common sense has to come in some- where along the way.

“We’re learning to moderate some of the suggestions we get in our marketing decisions. It’s not a way to get other people to do product development for us. We’ll still make the decisions.”

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