Brands take nuanced approach to social media

08 April 2010

NEW YORK: Advertisers like Coca-Cola, Starbucks and Mercedes-Benz are taking a more nuanced approach to social media, as their understanding of how best to use this channel improves.

Linda Cronin, director of media and interactive communications for Coca-Cola's North America arm, argued that effectively leveraging this medium requires a company-wide response.

"Social media should be owned by the whole organisation, not one person or one department," she said.

The soft drinks giant has drawn together teams from a wide variety of departments as it seeks to adopt a coordinated approach over the entirety of its operations.

"We have created two Social Media Councils, one for national and one for global. These groups include representatives from media, marketing, legal, PR and other functions across Coca-Cola," she added.

Alongside offering a more coordinated way of developing strategy, this model has provided a valuable forum for discussing new initiatives.

"It's more than the actual council itself. It's about the connections that are made across disciplines," Cronin continued.

Coca-Cola is currently one of the most popular corporate users of Facebook, where it has 5.3 million fans, and has also built its own successful properties, like MyCokeRewards.

"Luckily, our community is passionate. We have a lot of brand advocates that stand up for Coke against negative sentiment," said Cronin.

However, as an increasing number of firms, such as Nestlé, are forced to grapple with negative electronic word-of-mouth, Cronin suggested that agencies will also have a key role to play.

"We rely on agency partners to help guide us. Especially when information being disseminated is inaccurate, it's important to provide real information," she said.

Starbucks, the coffee house chain, has signed up around 12,500 fans every day since it established a presence on Facebook in November 2008, taking it to a total of 6.5 million today.

The company bases its social media activity on the principle "We make friends, not offers", despite the fact discounts are often seen as a valuable tool with which to engage consumers.

"It's not that we don't ever do offers, because we do, but that's kind of secondary," said Matthew Guiste, Starbucks' director of global social media.

"For us, it's really about sharing the Starbucks experience behind the scenes."

Mercedes-Benz, the automaker, discovered the significance of new media after gaining an insight into the views of students at Harvard, New York University, Wharton and Kellogg.

Over two days, the organisation conducted in-depth interviews with a sample of this cohort, who will form its next generation of customers, particularly for the entry-level C-Class, to be launched in 2013.

It found that this group of "digital natives" were well-informed about brands, often due to research conducted on Web 2.0 services, according to Steve Cannon, vp, marketing of Mercedes-Benz's US arm.

"Because of social media, they are network-driven and they turn to these giant networks as their number one source of information to help them in daily decisions. It's almost a hive mentality," he said.

"We are just going to have to understand social networks in a really intimate way and understand what that 'social capital' is for them to be compelled enough to share something."

At present, Mercedes is in a "listening and learning phase" with this audience, but it is considering the possibility of giving influential consumers cars to test drive in the future to create "brand ambassadors."

Data sourced from Econsultancy, MediaPost, Seattle Times; additional content by Warc staff