At the brand level, many leading social media campaigns fall into one of the following two categories: to support a new product launch and to assist with marketing and promotional activity. 

Cadbury has been a heavy user of social media for new product activity. This year, Cadbury launched the Bubbly version of its Dairy Milk bar in the UK via Google+. 

Social media also featured strongly in the launch of the new bite-sized version of chocolate brand Wispa last year. Wispa has a strong link to social media; its return to shelves in 2007 came after a campaign on Facebook and MySpace.

Both instances saw the company turn to its existing customer base on social media websites to generate a ‘buzz’ around the new products. 

Earlier this year, Facebook users were invited to vote which of two limited-edition versions of Kellogg‘s Krave breakfast cereal would become permanent. The brand’s Facebook page has almost 500 likes, and followed the launch of a new Milk Chocolate version exclusively via Facebook the previous year.

Brand owners have also utilised social media in competitions to suggest new flavours for their products. One such company is PepsiCo, which ran a competition early in 2012 inviting UK customers to guess three mystery flavours of Walkers crisps and win a prize (the flavours later went on sale as limited editions). Almost 800,000 guesses were submitted to the competition, which was widely publicised on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. The brand’s Facebook page gained up to 100,000 fans, while the YouTube content attracted over a quarter of a million views. 

In the US, Unilever used social media when it introduced Magnum ice cream into the country last year. A series of short films were developed with the aim of attracting one million Facebook fans amongst the brand’s core audience of 25-35 year-old females. Unilever also developed a Facebook app called ‘Magnum Mini Moments’, which allowed consumers to personalise iconic moments from Paramount Picture films. 

Social media is also popular for promoting celebration occasions. Kraft Foods, for example, launched a new interactive campaign in March to celebrate the centenary of its Oreo biscuit brand. Facebook users were encouraged to share their favourite Oreo stories, as a result of which the brand’s Facebook community is now thought to exceed 60 million fans. In the words of Beth Reilly, Kraft’s digital marketing manager, “we have more than 24 million fans talking about Oreo in 100 countries”.

However, more recently, Oreo has highlighted that an association between food brands and events can sometimes generate negative feedback on social networks. In June, Oreo pledged support for gay pride on its Facebook page, following events in several major US cities. Although the majority of Oreo’s Facebook fans pledged support for its stance, up to 20,000 criticised the brand, even threatening a boycott as a result.

Brand owners have also been investigating the potential of social media websites as direct sales channels. Much of this has been driven by optimistic forecasts suggesting that social commerce revenue has the potential to reach up to US$30bn by 2015. One notable example within the food industry has been the efforts of Heinz to sell limited edition ketchup to its Facebook audience – which had patchy success. Technical failures in the US left consumers waiting for their product.

Social media campaigns have also been used to enhance food companies’ social responsibility credentials. Kraft’s North American unit launched an iPad app named Big Fork, Little Fork, which helps instil good eating habits and an appreciation of food into children. The app contains ‘how-to’ videos for cooking food, as well as interactive games, articles and recipes. Given the hostility the food industry has encountered from elements of the health lobby, social media may present an opportunity for companies to spread nutritional awareness and information. Kellogg, meanwhile, has been using social media to help hungry children in the US, in partnership with Action for Healthy Kids since 2011.

There is also evidence that brand owners are starting to take a slightly different view of the way social media is used. This year, Nestlé launched an app on its Kit Kat Social Break website, which allows users to automatically keep up on websites such as Facebook and Twitter. It was developed following research indicating that approximately half of social media users in countries such as the US and China found keeping up with social media too time-consuming and stressful.

This launch of this app (which was later dubbed an ‘anti-social media’ app) suggests an element of consumer fatigue is perhaps creeping into the market among core users, as a result of which businesses may need to reappraise how their consumer base thinks and behaves. However, the idea was less well-received in other quarters – it was pointed out that all the app was doing was automating a task people were more inclined to carry out themselves.