Has the development of social media truly and fundamentally changed the relationship between businesses and customers, how the interplay between them is formed, how companies act to communicate their brand? Or is it so far mainly a relocation of traditional methods of marketing and communication to new media but with basically the same tools of getting the message through? The recent years’ massive growth in social media has generated an increasing interest in this area and phenomena such as YouTube, Twitter, Facebook and blogging might be perceived of as unstoppable forces of change for the formation of B2C structures. New abilities to express ideas, opinions and assessments through these new media should potentially not only provide businesses with an influence on what is produced and sold but also drive a stronger customer impact.
This explorative study, being the initial step towards further investigation of the influence of social media on primarily consumer goods in Sweden, produce less clear-cut conclusions. There has been a change in the number of actors involved in the building of brand identity today as compared to before and these actors can actively contribute to the perception of brands both from a customer and business perspective. However, in order to establish relations between consumers and businesses, not solely transactions (goods for money) or basic interplay (providing answers to questions), the level of interaction has to grow and that seems yet to be lacking on a larger scale.
Judging from the pilot studies made here, which are supported by another recent study of stock-market companies, the impression is that the major Swedish consumer goods companies mainly do what they have always done but on new forums (same-same but slightly different), that is a one-way communication of the companies’ marketing strategy of their brand. Only a few companies enable input from customers on assortment aspects or suggestions for future product development, and instead limit customer influence to liking/disliking a product or to give customer comments on recipes on company Facebook pages. The majority of consumer goods customers that have opinions and actively do participate in discussions on social networks usually give rather neutral or bland contributions, most commonly as response to activities initiated by the companies and only seldom do the customers themselves raise a question or lift new issues that a company needs to address. Having said this, in certain extraordinary cases social media has proved to provide potential customer influence on specific business decisions but on average the degree of consumer activity and involvement is limited.
Consumer goods are not products that normally evoke great involvement from a large base of customers, but one important ingredient in building strong brands is exactly that – customer involvement – and the question is how social media will be used for this purpose in the future. The consumer goods manufacturers face the challenge of increasing the level of customer involvement and of finding the right tools for using different forms of social media in order to create relations between them and their customers, not solely transactions. The study of this research area is still in its early stages and hence will also the development of methods and theoretical frameworks for studying how social media influences and changes B2C-structures be needed in the future. The concept of brand identity entails in itself great complexity and it will be interesting to see what it will represent in a setting where brand images most likely and to a increasing extent will be affected by how we interact in new social media and networks.