Brand Netnographers Need To Look As Well As Listen


In February 2007, with insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan at their peak, the American military sent a special squad of experts into the warzones. The teams of the Human Terrain System were made up of anthropologists and their job was to understand the environment in which the military was working and help the allied forces to win over the locals. In using anthropological tools to conquer ground, the US army was late. Large brands have been doing the same thing online since the days of bulletin boards and listservs. With the growth of social media and the emergence of virtual communities large enough to be studied meaningfully, that “netnography,” as one of the discipline’s biggest evangelists has called it, is now more important than ever.

According to Robert Kozinets, professor of marketing at York University’s Schulich School of Business and the anthropologist whose 1995 doctoral dissertation was the first piece of research to mine online communities for marketing information, netnography has a clear definition. It’s a set of techniques that adapt anthropological research to the world of the Internet. It uses ethnography, the study of populations, and applies it to online communities.

For his dissertation, Kozinets was looking at the conversations surrounding Campbell’s, the soup-makers. He found that customers were swapping innovative recipes online and discussing ways of using the company’s products that the company itself hadn’t considered. In addition to those interactions Kozinets also looked for deeper connections. A post on one board in which a customer mentioned that their granddaughter had won an equestrian competition the previous weekend revealed the state of the community’s health.

“Members relate to one another almost as if they were in a real kitchen, pointing to the feelings of trust, closeness, and familiarity associated with the brand,” Kozinets pointed out.

Conducting the research was relatively straightforward — certainly easier than spending a year with a tribe in the Amazon. The process of practicing netnography tends to have six stages:

  • Research planning.
  • “Entrée” — the method chosen by the researches to enter and observe the community.
  • Data collection.
  • Interpretation.
  • Ensuring ethical standards.
  • Research representation.

For Campbell’s Kozinets located and listened to bloggers. He reviewed competitors, “checked out” forums and newsgroups, examined videos on YouTube and produced statements about brand impact, best practices, missed opportunities, failed efforts and key trends.

Better Than Focus Groups

The information he found might have differed little from the data that could have been produced using more traditional strategies such as focus groups and surveys.  Focus groups, however, are artificial and, like surveys, rely on eliciting answers to questions posed by marketers. Both are expensive. Netnography allows marketers to observe customers unobtrusively, see how they interact, and gather information and insight based on their real activities without interference from the company.

The result of Kozinets’ research was a plan that enabled Campbell’s to build its products into meal-planning routines, offer tips for busy cooks, show portion control and even allow customers to “search by mood” so that they could choose soups that were “hearty” or “comforting,” choices that presumably drew on the kinds of words used by online community members.

Other companies have followed suit. Kozinets’ other customers have included American Express, Coca Cola, BMW and Swarovski. Hyve, a Munich-based market research company specializing in netnography, studied online communities of Adidas customers who collect and decorate the company’s shoes. According to MIT Technology Review, the research helped the shoe company to make one of its most successful new product launches.

For Johnson & Johnson, Kozinets researched conversations surrounding the company’s Listerine brand. He used Google, Technorati, and Twitter Search to track mentions of the brand, scanned visual and audiovisual data on Facebook, YouTube, Flickr, and DeviantArt, and used Netbase’s ConsumerBase tool to locate, organize, and classify his findings, and to look for patterns. He also examined health blogs, medical advice forums, social media groups and microblog feeds that mention the product.

“This netnography begins with the question ‘Which online communities and other social spaces do consumers who are interested in Listerine congregate to?’ The next set of questions might concern more specific purposes, such as ‘What brand meanings do culture members associate with Listerine” and “What are some of the novel uses to which Listerine is put?’”

Typical sources for Kozinets’ analysis of the way in which the brand is perceived include a quote from gossip writer Perez Hilton: “If Jon Gosselin is really strapped for cash, we suppose he could always pose nude, but then we would have to find a way to soak our brains in Listerine.”

The overall findings of Kozinets’ research were that Listerine was perceived as “artificial and chemical,” “associated with harsh, strong, purification,” “linked to home cleaning products” and “associated with grandpa.”

Listerine’s brand managers, Kozinets says in a paper, could use that brief analysis to focus their marketing efforts. They can consider the value of the brand’s nostalgia appeal, think about expanding into related areas such as cleaning fluids and skin care, and identify the social media forums on which to launch their products.

Virtual Communities Are Now About Showing, Not Telling

That paper though was written in 2010. Four years on, social media has changed. Listservs and forums have long given way to social platforms and groups, but brands have also now come to recognize that engagement depends on visual content rather than on posts and discussions. Old-style forums allowed conversations to happen organically and without the interference of marketers or companies; on Facebook, conversations are managed by social media professionals who choose the subjects of their posts and define the topics of the comments that customers will contribute.

Kozinets notes that Listerine’s “chemical harshness and artificiality are echoed in visual imagery that portrays Listerine bottles with strong muscular arms, as a hand grenade, and with an alien blue glow.” Those images only appear occasionally on the brand’s Facebook page. The cover image focuses on one result of using the product: shiny teeth. Other images focus on the food that might prompt someone to reach for the Listerine bottle or the occasions when someone might notice you haven’t been swishing.


Listerine’s social media managers show smiles on Facebook.

Comments from customers though, are rare and mostly focused on competition results. If netnographers are hoping to use Facebook as a source for their research then the company’s own page would produce little useful data.

A better resource would be Pinterest. A search for boards about Listerine on the site reveals many of the trends that Kozinets found when he conducted his research more than four years ago.

While the Facebook page only promotes the idea of Listerine as a mouthwash and shows pictures of people swishing, Pinterest’s users are still discussing the different ways in which the fluid can be used. We see boards about Listerine and vinegar, Listerine as bug spray and Listerine in a foot bath. In addition to bottles of Listerine, still square-shaped for a strong grip, we see lots of pictures of feet soaking.

Judging by the differences between the pictures alone, it’s clear that Johnson & Johnson is failing to change the conversation about its product.


Listerine’s customers on Pinterest want to show their feet.

Campbell’s though has been more successful. Instead of trying to change the way people talk about its brands in online communities, it’s chosen to lead those conversations. Rebranding itself as Campbell’s Kitchen rather than Campbell’s Soups, the images on the company’s Facebook page show only dishes, and link to recipes on the website.

Comments are plentiful, receive answers from the brand’s social media managers and build on the suggestions presented by the company. Compare the kinds of images offered by the company to those posted by customers on Pinterest, and unlike Listerine it’s clear that Campbell’s is now in line with the way it’s perceived by its market.


Campbell’s Kitchen on Pinterest looks a lot like the brand’s Facebook page.

Netnography is a relatively new way for large firms to conduct market research and while its methods are tried and tested, it faces a unique challenge: real communities might change slowly but for virtual communities, revolutionary change can happen with the speed of a start-up. As social media has become more visual, it’s also become clearer which companies are branding right and which are at odds with their markets.

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