When I first saw this headline on a blog post, I was intrigued. The author was quoting Don Schultz, Professor Emeritus at Northwestern’s Medill School and the “father of integrated marketing” at the recent Content Marketing World conference. Mr. Schultz was referencing a ten-year study on brand preference in a number of categories which shows a decline in brand preference and corresponding increase in acceptance and use of generic brands.

In a recent Forbes magazine article, Mr. Schultz gave this explanation of the study and conclusions he and his co-author, Martin Block, have reached:

Based on preliminary results of a new ten year, longitudinal study of social media and social media users, (1,100,000+ online questionnaire responses , covering 73 fmcg categories and 1,500+ individual brands) a new research study conducted by professors in the Integrated Marketing Communication Department at Northwestern University’s Medill School, found that heavy users of social media (primarily Facebook) when asked for brand preferences in various product categories, showed higher levels of specific “No Brand Preference” as a brand category choice, than those who used less social media. Also, as social media usage increased (primarily Facebook) over time by respondents, there was a measurable decline in specific product brand preferences in a majority of the product brand categories covered in the study.

The study also found that only 11% of the respondents “regularly asked for or sought advice” from others, indicating that social media is used primarily for “social conversations” among users, not to provide product recommendations to others. At the other end of the spectrum, nearly 19% of social media users said they “never seek or give advice” about products or services through social media or other forms of word-of-mouth.

Findings from this study seem to confirm that social media usage is primarily for “social purposes” and the potential for marketers invading social media vehicles or encouraging social media users to become product advocates is not only limited, but, may actually be counterproductive in terms of building brand value and brand relationships. (my emphasis).

After viewing other presentations of this study made by Messrs. Schultz and Block, I have only one conclusion to make.

ARE YOU KIDDING ME?

This finding is based on a large sample from a very limited source. – primarily Facebook users. Putting aside my own personal feelings (mostly negative) about Facebook, I am very surprised that The Medill School at Northwestern University (a highly respected institution) would allow this study to be presented under their auspices. The fact that Drs. Schultz and Block found that only 11% of users want to hear about brands on social networks when the study was primarily from that medium seems rather naïve. I suspect that if you asked anyone if they want to hear about brands on a mass medium, the results would be similar.

But the real naiveté is concluding that this means that marketers and brands using social media are “killing their brands”.

Correlation doesn’t automatically mean causation.
I’m not surprised that heavy Facebook users have increased their statement of “no brand preference” in favor of more acceptance and usage of generic brands. Nielsen sales results shows that many people, not just heavy Facebook users, feel the same way. Just because the number correlate, doesn’t mean there is a cause and effect relationship.

This statement flies in the face of many other positive studies on the value of social media, as many marketers report that they get good results from social media. An IAB study released in July reported that 90% of consumers back brands after interacting via social media.

The 2013 Social Media Marketing Industry Report from Social Media Examiner reported that 89% of the 3,000+ marketers they surveyed indicated that their social media efforts have generated more exposure and 75% reported positive increases in brand traffic.

Can social media kill brands?
Yes. There are plenty of bad uses of social media vehicles by marketers.

Does social media kill brands?
No. When brands use social media as a legitimate tool for disseminating relevant information and value to a community, social media works.

Even when heavy Facebook users are turning to store brands!

– Don Morgan

Don Morgan is 2013/14 President of PSAMA, and Head Rainmaker at Raindance Consulting, a branding, social media, and business development consulting company in Seattle. He can be reached at dmorgan@raindanceconsulting.com.

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