When Twitter does not really like you: how the City of Johannesburg’s brand community innovates the dreary messages of local government


With its reputation for angry mobs and consumer rants, Twitter is a challenging environment for consumer-brand relationships. Likewise, for an African local government such as the City of Johannesburg, engaging about a wide spectrum of service delivery shortcomings affecting a vast metropolitan district is difficult. Criticised for its high crime levels, frequent power outages, and urban decay, living in Johannesburg is not for the faint-hearted. Yet, amidst the angry noise on Twitter, the City of Johannesburg hosts an animated brand community that has often been commended for its innovative approach to engaging around service delivery issues and public service campaigns. Correspondingly, the purpose of the study is to explore how the brand community hosted by the official City of Johannesburg Twitter account co-creates brand innovation.

A qualitative study analysed a purposive sample of 1,232 tweets. To further confirm and contextualise findings, data was also collected by one in-depth, semi-structured interview with the social media manager of the City of Johannesburg. A thematic analysis of the data reveals that five brand innovation practices were evident, namely animation, openness, linking, structuring, and theorisation. As findings suggest, a brand community becomes more lively and loyal when valuing the community as a pool of talent. Here, everyone acts as the eyes and ears of the municipality by reporting service delivery problems. Anyone is free to suggest innovative new brand applications and members reciprocate goodwill by helping one another. Most notably, messages about somewhat dreary issues, such as potholes, crime, strikes, electricity outages, water shortages, and traffic congestion are interjected with humorous, tongue-in-cheek comments. To this end, much of the anger and frustration associated with service delivery shortcomings are diffused by the witty bantering and goodwill that emerge when valuing creative suggestions and collaborative engagements instead of pushing scripted, one-way messages that tend to stifle brand innovation.