There's something interesting going on in social media at the moment. It seems that as we become more used to how social technology functions, it is becoming less of an individual platform as we learn how it can be used to group together over a single cause and use 'pester power' to fight against brands. The extent of this can be seen with two similar cases lately, oddly both related to changes in food products. As mundane as something like an ingredient change might be, if you look further, you can see deeper into the infrastructure of social media to see how it's being used to organise, unite and protest.
Don't change our HP
The first example can be seen against HP, who recently made a change to their 116 year old recipe, to reduce the salt content. While this was done for health reasons, HP fans are not happy about the change and are turning to Twitter & Facebook to vent. The issue has even made the national news now, including Channel 4 and ITV. A look at their Facebook Page - where fans are rallying for a 'Bring Back the Salt campaign, will not make easy reading for HP.
And even celebrities are getting involved, with Marco Pierre White calling the (new) sauce 'disgusting'. Would the news HP reducing the salt level in their sauce have reached such heights without the protests on social media? It's unlikely.
Don't change our tea either
The online furor over HP comes just after a similar case with Twinings Earl Grey, who made a change to their recipe by making the tea more 'lemony'. Some likened the new taste to lemon Cif. And as you'd expect by now, a Facebook campaign was started with various 'Bring back our Earl Grey tea' groups :
Earl Grey have bowed to consumer pressure and have now reintroduced the original recipe. Now some might see this as a bit of an own goal for Earl Grey ; the result being that they now have scores of fans not only talking about their brand but rejoicing about the comeback, with surely some panic buying of the last 'original' boxes in between. These 2 cases are proving how social media is developing and just where the power lies.
The roles have reversed
These two cases are hardly isolated. It's not the first time we've seen a company try to change something in their product or services, only to be met with huge outrage online and be forced to change. Sometimes it's for the good of the company, as in Bring Back Wispa, but sometimes it can create damaging PR, as with Gap's logo change. The fact that we've seen two such similar cases occur so close to each other however, is representative of a shift in our social media intelligence, as we really begin to learn how the power of one can be used to take on a large corporation, however trivial the reason for this may be. Only now we're beginning to see the real power of organisation on social media, brought to the headlines recently with the riots in London, where social technologies were blamed for allowing sub-groups to organise and wreak havoc.
From a brand or organisation point of view, this brings with it a new set of challenges, as evidently every single move you make - even an ingredient change is subject to scrutiny online and people are not afraid of speaking out. More importantly, they know how to speak out and get heard. For the brand, the challenge is in knowing who you should listen to and when to make a change. And when, in fact, you've got it right. In the case of HP, it may well be a case of riding it out as the ingredient change was instigated to bring the product in line with the Food Standards Authority. In a case like this, the brand/product has to continue to dictate and to know that bowing to consumer pressure isn't the right route.
But as consumer power only gets stronger, what does this mean for the future of brands and ownership? The fact is that a company no longer really owns their brands anymore - as proven by HP and Twinings. To some extent, this is nothing more than a PR exercise, as you instigate a change based on the feedback you get online. But it also becomes more serious than this, when you look at the huge potential power when consumers unite through a medium that they've never had access to before. It's not something that history can teach us as we're dealing with something unique. Everyone having access to a platform to unite : for good or bad.