By Emma Leister
In April of 2018, Carter Wilkerson tweeted a simple question to the Wendy’s Twitter account, asking how many retweets he would need before the restaurant would give him a year’s supply of chicken nuggets. Wendy’s subsequent challenge for Wilkerson—obtain 18 million retweets—sparked a storm that overtook social media with the hashtag #NuggsForCarter and ultimately culminated in both a new record for the highest number of retweets for a single tweet and a year’s supply of nuggets for Wilkerson.[i]
Wendy’s challenge to Wilkerson should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the restaurant’s Twitter account. Known for its snarky and witty tweets, Wendy’s has become iconic for its social media engagement and brand image presentation via Twitter and other means. However, Wendy’s is just one example of the countless companies that have successfully used social media to connect with consumers and establish a powerful brand image.
Social media has made it easier than ever for companies to interact directly with their consumers. This access provides companies with new possibilities for establishing a brand personality and the ability to reach consumers on an unprecedented level. However, this begs the question: What kind of impact has social media had on traditional methods of branding? To answer this question, one must first understand the forces that drive branding, and then one can examine the impact of social media on those forces. By understanding the impact of social media on branding, companies can learn to better utilize social media to connect with consumers and establish meaningful brands.
The Forces of Branding
Today’s market consists of millions of different products offered by millions of unique organizations all vying for consumers’ hard-earned dollars. If a company is to have any hope of reaching consumers through the chaos, it must find a way to distinguish itself from the crowd. Branding provides this critical distinction and allows a company to make a name for itself and establish a desired association within consumers’ minds.[ii]
While it is possible for a company to differentiate its products based on physical attributes, establishing an emotional connection with consumers is the most successful method of both differentiating products and establishing a meaningful brand image.[iii] Once consumers have connected with this brand image, they often become fiercely loyal to the brand and engage with it on multiple levels.
While there are many theoretical frameworks and studies that seek to explain the psychological phenomenon of brand engagement and consumer loyalty, one study (written by Chrianjeev Kohli, Rajneesh Suri, and Anuj Kapoor for Business Horizons) provides a particularly deep look into the forces that drive consumer engagement and personal identity with brands. According to Kohli et al., brand inertia, assured quality, and desire for expression are the driving forces behind the powerful effects that branding has on consumer engagement and loyalty.[iv]
Brand inertia refers to the fact that consumers are relatively stable in their brand preferences. This stability represents consumers’ efforts to reduce the cognitive resources required for their purchasing decisions, as it is easier for consumers to simply remain loyal to brands that satisfy their needs than to actively evaluate and choose between new brands.[v]
Assured quality also has an impact on the way with a brand. Consumers are often hyperaware of the risks associated with a given purchase, and purchasing products from a known and trusted brand name allows them to mitigate risk and feel confident in their purchases.[vi]
Finally, Kohli et al. assert that the desire for expression drives many consumers’ tendency to interact with known brands, since consumers use brands to express their individuality and goals. Interestingly, brand loyalty that is rooted in the desire for personal expression provides a more stable pattern of consumer behavior than any of the other forces behind branding.[vii]
The Impact of Social Media on Branding
As previously stated, social media has made it easier than ever for companies to interact directly with consumers. As expressed by Kohli et al., “Brands can get noticed with smaller investments, if they are creative about their use of social media and/or connect with customers. And, longer time horizons are not needed because social media has the ability to move information faster and to amplify it.”[viii] As more companies use social media to establish brand images that connect with consumers, the question of how social media impacts branding naturally comes to light.
The Brand-Consumer Social Sharing framework, created by Françoise Simon and Vesselina Tossan, examines the effects of social media on the inner mechanisms of branding.[ix]
As demonstrated in the following graphic, the Social Sharing Value framework’s central points are the mediating forces of satisfaction and brand gratitude, which lead consumers to engage with a brand’s social media by consuming, contributing, and creating content. Satisfaction and brand gratitude are themselves the result of Brand-Consumer Social Sharing Value, which is generated by a combination of social-media-facilitated factors such as brand intimacy, individual recognition, influence, and community belonging.[xi]
Figure 1. The Brand-Consumer Social Sharing Value Framework[xii]
Brand intimacy is a reflection of perceived security within a consumer-brand relationship that builds itself across many interactions over a period of time. Social media facilitates such feelings of intimacy by allowing individuals to directly interface with a brand’s content.[xiii]
Feelings of brand individual recognition are created as consumers begin to feel that their brands are noticing and caring about them. Such feelings begin with a base level of recognition as a customer, which companies can communicate via online interactions with individual consumers.[xiv]
Brand influence is the result of consumers believing that they have an influence on a brand, which motivates those consumers to participate in online communities of other brand users.[xv]
Finally, online interaction with other brand users allows individual consumers to feel a sense of belonging to a community and gaining knowledge of a brand through fellow consumers.[xvi]
Despite the positive impacts of social media and social sharing on branding, one should note that social media introduces several unique issues and implications for marketers attempting to establish meaningful branding and consumer connections. For example, social media grants unprecedented control to consumers, who can filter the information they are exposed to, potentially choosing to ignore marketing efforts propagated on social media.[xvii]
Social media also connects consumers to one another, allowing them to share information and opinions at an alarmingly fast pace. Cross-consumer communication regarding companies and brands results in an “amplification of reputation” that can either benefit or severely harm a brand’s image.[xviii]
Finally, because social media has reduced the level of investment required to reach consumers, more companies are able to engage directly with consumers, thus threatening established brands by making consumers more aware of the competition. As more brands utilize social media to interact with consumers, they will need to narrow their focus and target more aggressively to niche targets in order to avoid drowning in a sea of competitors.[xix]
Implementation of Social Media Branding
Given social media’s inherent ability to create intimate connections between consumers and brands, companies planning to employ social media for marketing and messaging will need to view their communication with consumers in a new light.
By their very nature, social media platforms are designed for individual use and interpersonal connection. This makes it difficult for large corporations to effectively communicate via social media without coming across as distant or solely driven by the desire to squeeze every last bit of profit from consumers.[xx]
How, then, can companies use social media to create a distinctive brand image that resonates with consumers, without appearing intrusive and pushy? An ideal starting point is to maintain a simple online presence that is unmarred by complexity and jargon.[xxi]
Additionally, “companies should choose a platform they feel would be used by most of their existing or potential customers,” since reaching consumers in their native environment can only increase feelings of intimacy and demonstrate that a company truly understands its consumers.[xxii]
Finally, engaging in cultural branding can help companies attract attention and spark conversation through social media. Cultural branding refers to a company or brand giving voice to “an innovative ideology that breaks with category conventions.”[xxiii] Practicing cultural branding provides an alternative to traditional branded content and resonates with online subcultures while taking full advantage of the information-spreading capabilities of social media.[xxiv]
Social media has drastically altered the way that companies interact with consumers. While traditional branding methods favor companies with the resources required to aggressively message consumers and establish a brand image, social media enables companies to connect directly with consumers on a personal level.
Branding through social media allows a company or brand to establish an intimate connection with consumers by inspiring feelings of brand influence, recognition, and belonging; which in turn, encourages said consumers to engage with the brand. This brand engagement over social media develops feelings of brand loyalty within consumers and ultimately results in the development of iconic brand presences, like Wendy’s on Twitter, which both commands attention and allows the brand to truly connect with consumers.
The powerful influence of social media can even be used in your own company’s marketing efforts as you take steps to connect with consumers and establish a meaningful brand image that truly stands out from the competition. Your newfound loyal customers will appreciate your efforts.
[i]Rebecca Stewart, “Wendy’s Makes Good on Twitter Chicken Nugget Promise as ‘Nuggs for Carter’ Campaign Breaks Retweet Record,” The Drum, May 9, 2017, https://www.thedrum.com/news/2017/05/09/wendys-makes-good-twitter-chicken-nugget-promise-nuggs-carter-campaign-breaks.
[iii] Kohli, Suri, and Kapoor, “Will Social Media Kill Branding?” 35–44.
[iv] Kohli, Suri, and Kapoor, 37.
[v] Kohli, Suri, and Kapoor, 37.
[vi] Kohli, Suri, and Kapoor, 37.
[vii] Kohli, Suri, and Kapoor, 37.
[viii] Kohli, Suri, and Kapoor, 38–39.
[ix] Françoise Simon and Vesselina Tossan, “Does Brand-Consumer Social Sharing Matter? A Relational Framework of Customer Engagement to Brand-Hosted Social Media,” Journal of Business Research, no. 85 (April 2018): 175–84, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jbusres.2017.12.050.
[x] Simon and Tossan, “Does Brand-Consumer Social Sharing Matter?” 176–177.
[xi] Simon and Tossan, 177.
[xii] Simon and Tossan, 177.
[xiii] Simon and Tossan, 177.
[xiv] Simon and Tossan, 177.
[xv] Simon and Tossan, 177.
[xvi] Simon and Tossan, 177.
[xvii] Kohli, Suri, and Kapoor, “Will Social Media Kill Branding?” 38.
[xviii] Kohli, Suri, and Kapoor, 38.
[xix] Kohli, Suri, and Kapoor, 39–40.
[xx] Barry Ritholtz, “Big Bureaucratic Companies Aren’t Great at Twitter,” Bloomberg Opinion, May 2, 2019,http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=buh&AN=136242795&site=ehost-live&scope=site
[xxi] ***Tracy Barbour,“Social Media Branding Tactics,” Alaska Business, March 2018, https://refworks-proquest-com.erl.lib.byu.edu/library/read/doc:5e545b72e4b03c2dc0420b74/.
[xxii] Barbour, “Branding Tactics,” 9.
[xxiii] Douglas Holt,“Branding in the Age of Social Media,” Harvard Business Review 94, no. 3 (March 2016): 40–50,
[xxiv] Holt, “Branding,” 46–48.