September 24, 2013, by Rob

How do consumers negotiate citizenship in online dialogue?

Piercing the brand ‘veil’ in social media: How do consumers negotiate citizenship in online dialogue?   

Douglas Holt asks the question: “Why do brands cause trouble?” pointing to the potential for brands to act as explicit signifiers of product attributes (e.g. quality / reliability) and as implicit markers of wider corporate responsibilities (e.g. social justice / environmental stewardship). The general current of his research highlights that, aided by new information technologies, activist groups and the media, people are more able and indeed willing to ‘pierce the veil of the brand’, confronting corporations on their treatment of humans and ecosystems more broadly. Brands thus become potential sites of dialogue, dissent and contestation over corporate citizenship.

These changes, which reflect the wrestling away of traditional corporate control of brand meaning, have been fuelled by an explosion of online corporate-consumer communications platforms. This has marked a shift towards ostensibly more inclusive dialogue on citizenship between key internal and external stakeholders. In this context, citizenship becomes a conversation rather than merely a brand attribute. Using The Body Shop International as an exemplary case study we report here on key findings from a recent article entitled “Corporate-Consumer Communication: Exploring Dialogue and Dialectics in the Co-Construction of Citizenship,” by Rob Caruana, Sarah Glozer, Sally Hibbert and Marrion Le Beller.

The Body Shop International (TBSI), a cosmetics business that prides itself on its values-based approach, has sought to actively engage consumers in citizenship issues over its 37-year history. TBSI vies to be seen as a responsible corporate citizen, enabling civil and political rights through engaging in diverse and provocative campaigns (e.g. human rights issues, domestic violence), alongside its traditional CSR focus on challenging animal testing, supporting Fairtrade and protecting the planet. The research reports on how the dialogue between TBSI and external members contributes to a view of the company as a radical corporate activist, and the various kinds of actions and relations that citizenship involves. Whilst a fairly coherent view of TBSI is generally shared, there are a number of dissenting voices that question the authenticity and threaten the stability of this citizen-like view of TBSI, connected, for instance, to its commercial relationship to L’Oreal.

Our findings illustrate the dialectic nature of corporate-consumer dialogue, highlighting how different parties contest, problematize, endorse, authenticate and eventually normalize citizenship knowledge in social media contexts. Positively, they illuminate how corporate and (predominantly) consumer stakeholders participate in galvanising and endorsing corporate responsibility for vulnerable agents. More critically, the study questions the extent to which those vulnerable agents currently have a voice; i.e. they appear to be subjects of a conversation that they appear not to have a part in.

By Dr Rob Caruana, Lecturer in Business Ethics and Sarah Glozer (@Sarah_CSR), Doctoral Researcher
ICCSR, Nottingham University Business School.


Posted in THEMES in Better Business