Our latest management briefing, a combined effort with our sister site, just-food, is an extended, three-part preview of 'Social Media in the Food and Drinks Industry', a report now available on just-drinks. In this final part, Jonathan Thomas looks at how two multinationals - PepsiCo and Unilever - have utilised social media to connect with their consumers.

Although social media forms an increasingly important element of marketing strategy in business, the food and drinks industry has tended to lag behind other sectors as an adopter, despite the efforts of a handful of multinational groups. In the UK, for example, uptake of social media has been highest for companies within industries such as technology, telecommunications and finance.

Some of the leading food groups and their social media strategies will now be discussed in more detail. Although most have the rather general aim of making a greater connection with brand users and consumers, more specific initiatives have also been launched, as the following examples illustrate.

A multinational food group that has been heavily active in the social media arena of late has been PepsiCo. In 2010, the company announced a major shift in its marketing strategy, moving away from traditional media in favour of social media. As part of this, up to half of PepsiCo’'s branding budget in the US was invested into social media – according to the company, this move would enable PepsiCo "to build deeper relationships and dialogue with customers".

The major feature of this strategy was the Pepsi Refresh Project, whereby consumers were encouraged to suggest social causes to "refresh the world", using social networking sites and an iPhone app, to which PepsiCo would later donate. Although the campaign generated huge levels of interest (60,000 followers on Twitter, for instance), it coincided with a loss in cola sales and hence market share. PepsiCo later admitted that its focus on social media had been too overpowering, and it has since returned to more traditional marketing channels.

Nevertheless, the company's focus upon social media remains strong. In 2011, PepsiCo teamed up with Highland Capital Partners, with the intention of using social media and technology more effectively. The partnership (which is named PepsiCo10) is being launched in the UK and Europe, and is seeking 10 companies within sectors such as social media, digital video and mobile marketing.

Social networking sites have also been utilised by a number of leading PepsiCo brands. In April 2011, Frito-Lay's Facebook community acquired over 1.5m new 'likes' in 24 hours, as a result of which fans were rewarded with free bags of potato crisps. In the UK, the number of Walkers' Twitter followers grew by 50% during its Clash of the Comics crisps campaign, which also resulted in more than a million online views of its videos. Over 650,000 fans registered online for the company’s Flavour Cup in 2010, while its Doritos Dip Desperados social game was launched the following year. Aimed at the brand's core audience of 18-34 year olds, this is expected to increase engagement with users of the Doritos Facebook page, which has recorded over 142,800 new 'likes' since June 2010.

Unilever has also been particularly active as a user of social media channels. In 2010, the company announced plans to create bespoke social networks across some of its major brands to involve consumers in its product development process. This formed part of Unilever's strategy of seeking inspiration for innovation from online communities – in the words of a company spokesman: "The consumer has a voice as never before, and brands need to listen more."

One such example within the food industry was the 2011 launch of a Facebook app for Ben & Jerry's ice cream. European consumers were encouraged to choose which ice cream flavours currently available in the US market (such as Vermonster and Oatmeal Cookie Chunk) they wanted to see sold in Europe. Following voting amongst the brand’s European Facebook fans, the winning brand is expected to go on sale in the UK and elsewhere later in the year. Although the Facebook page for Ben & Jerry's has over 1.5m fans, most are based in the US, as a result of which Unilever is now seeking to connect with consumers elsewhere in the world. 

Social media marketing also featured for Unilever’s Marmite XO, an extra strong version of Marmite launched in March 2010. This identified a core group of brand hardcore 'superfans', later dubbed "The Marmarati." This group of consumers were identified through their blogging activities, with others later signed up through social networking sites such as Facebook. Consumers were encouraged to contribute content such as photos, videos and poems.

The campaign generated significant interest amongst the online community, producing over 6,000 Twitter updates mentioned The Marmarati. Unilever also saw 2,835 user registrations in the month the competition was open, with almost 67,000 votes cast. The four months of the campaign also generated over 54,000 total website visits, resulting in more than 302,000 page views.

It remains to be seen how often and with what success food and drink manufacturers adopt social media as part of their marketing strategy. Current trends suggest that more companies are likely to utilise social media, for reasons ranging from the increasing number of people signing up to social networking sites, to the fear of being left behind by their competitors.

However, it has also been suggested that the advantages to businesses of social media have been overstated, due partly to the financial growth of the social networking sites. Although it is recognised that social media can add new options and advantages to the marketing mix, it should not be viewed as suitable for all campaigns within the food and drinks industry.

For full details of the full, 10-000-word report, click here.

To read part two of this briefing, click here. Part one can be found here.