Will big brands be the death of social media?

by on October 30, 2009

I was prompted to write about an article in Advertising Age this morning about Unilever’s foray into Social Media in China.   This article highlights various social media campaigns that Unilever is running in Asia and specifically their product launch for Ponds Age Miracle cream.

While I applaud Unilever for making the leap into Social Media Marketing and the excellent guidance they got from Ogilvy’s 360 Digital influence team it is the various comments in the article that concern me.

The comments from the Unilever brand marketers demonstrate a fundamental misunderstanding of how social media and social media marketing works.

I am afraid this successful case for a CPG brand of this scale will tip many other brands into the SMM arena or make the teams with success “social media crack addicts” wanting the same results but faster without a proper understanding of how it really works.  This can only result in unsuccessful programs and frustration leading to the ultimate downfall of social media marketing.

What if those “social media people don’t like our product?”

In the first part of the article they talk about how the Unilever team took a risk to try social media and “fortunately” the participants liked the product and the test was a success.

It was a risky decision. China’s blog community is large, active and influential. More than 100 million Chinese claim to communicate via forums and discussion boards and 41 million are heavy social-media contributors, according to Netpop. If women hated Pond’s Age Miracle, the brand would tank.

Well duh… Just like the one liner from comedian Ron White – you can’t fix stupid – well social media can’t help a bad product – in fact it will only escalate the eventual death or hopefully, if brands bother to listen, changes that will make it a better product.

Social does not end when the trial ends…

To Unilever’s relief, bloggers gushed over the mysterious moisturizer in hundreds of posts during a seven-day trial last month. Even after the trial ended, nine out of 10 continued to endorse the brand as enthusiastic, and unpaid, brand ambassadors.

Again, duh… that is the power of social media and the fundamental communication and collaboration within the networks – people do it on their terms not just when they have been interrupted by a TV advertisement.

Furthermore, it is a face cream and not a razor or some other single “used it and liked it” type product.   Using a product like face cream won’t give you a solid outcome unless you have used it a few times or over a period of time.  I looked at some of the blog comments around this product and found most wanted to see before and after pictures of teh blogger or how well it was working a few weeks to a month after they started using the product.

Brands can’t assume with products like these to have that single initial amazing post – “wow, my skin feels great” and not expect to have the one in a month that says – “Used it daily for a month and did not see any change”.  It is the “I did see a change” post that will have the greatest impact on sales and increase us of the product.

We must think about the downstream actions of social media campaigns.  As noted, even after the actual “trial ended” it continued which is a totally different animal than most CPG marketers are used to.  Historically, they run commercials and once they are out of media rotation the awareness generation ends and brand marketers move onto the next promotion.  In reality, the awareness lives on with product usage and real consumer experiences.  This “word of mouth” has always been there but before blogs, forums and Twitter there was no real “mass” method of communicating our likes and dislikes.  It is that last post “I used it, I liked it and it worked” post that will show up in search results later and be a boon for people searching for the product that were not early adopters.

Remember what we all learned in customer service 101 – a happy person will tell 10 friends and an unhappy person will tell 250.  Same problem but people have a larger microphone.  Fortunately or unfortunately, commenting via a social media platform reaches a group of people that share similar interests further amplifying the commentary.

I have been trying to get brand marketers to understand that the experience lives on long after the commercial has ended.  That is why we have tried to get them to ensure they have relevant search positions and integrated search marketing at all the key intersection points.  These initial stimuli are only the first step of the interaction chain of events.

It is even more critical now since all of this great social media content ends up in the results pages of search engines for anyone to see when they do these searches far into the future.

Social Media is NOT a Media Buy

“Everyone was excited by the response in China,” said Singapore-based Mutya Laxa Buensuceso, Unilever’s global brand director for Pond’s. “[And] the cost of those sites are a tenth that of traditional media, so it’s very cost efficient as well.”

When marketers make the leap from “they talked about our product favorably” to “wow – the media on these social media sites is really cheap” – to me this is the a sign that  social media marketing is already in decline.  Why do I say this?

Social Media users are people who are connecting with people who have shared interests – “SHARED INTERESTS” – which makes it niche marketing at best.

They are talking about your product because they like it.  That can’t be faked, bought or scaled.  Social media is not, cannot and will not be a broadcast message. To get giddy about the low cost of social media adverting is a gross misunderstanding of the fundamentals of social media and the very nature of these types of sites.

The Pets.com Mentality of opportunity

Unfortunately, we are back to the Pets.com mentality of market opportunity – there are 100 million Chinese using social media and commenting in forums and half are women therefore we can reach 50 million women with social media – brilliant.

Marketers will now use the same antiquated approach they do with TV – there are a gazillion women using Facebook in China and since we want to talk to women lets dump a millions of dollars of advertising with the simple profile factor they are women.  This is just so wrong.

So why am I afraid?

With this article and the case studies profiled CPG/FMCG companies and their agencies will leverage it resulting in hundreds of “me too” projects that will all end in failure.  Why?  The desire to spin out all of these campaigns will happen with the meticulous planning, messages, tracking, caution and dumb luck they had with the test to make it right.  They will be rushed to market as a savior of a brand by 3rd tier agency staff without the rigor needed to ensure the overall success.   This will result in failure for both the brand as well as the “real marketing opportunities” of social media.

My other fear, which is the more likely outcome – is that if the product would have been bad and people told people it was bad then it would have been social media’s fault that the product or brand was a failure with no regard that it was actually a bad product.  Boys and girls, that in a nutshell “is” the power of social media – they tell their interconnected friends what they think about a product – good or bad.  If your product sucks it sucks and if it is good it is good – either way the social media microphone loudly announces which one it is.

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