Bloggers are a force to be reckoned with. Conferences are being built around them, businesses are sending their products directly to the source to be blogged about, and "blogger" is officially a job title. They have also become an unofficial policing force of brands, not hesitating to voice their concerns and objections to a company, its products, or its business practices. Armed with little more than loyal readers and a Twitter account, a blogger can do some serious damage.
Check out the five examples of blogger versus brand, and take notes.
Kryptonite: The original flogging
One of the first examples of a lone blogger taking down a giant brand took place in mid-September 2004 when bike enthusiast Chris Brennan posted a note on the Bike Forums blog. "Your brand new U-lock is not safe," he began, before describing how he unlocked the company's new Kryptonite Evolution 2000 with a Bic pen. Very soon after, videos inspired by Brennan's post went live, showing how to pick the expensive locks with plastic pens. The story was picked up that week by national newspapers, including the New York Times which ran an article titled "The Pen Is Mightier Than the Lock."
On September 22, Kryptonite announced an exchange program, but it was criticized as being too slow, and many bicyclists went out and bought new locks from their competitors instead. Worse was the revelation that the glitch had been discovered and reported on in the British magazine, New Cyclist, way back in 1992 -- the pre-blog, dial-up internet days. This lead to 10 class-action lawsuits -- later settled out of court -- alleging Kryptonite knew about the flaw.
Six years or so later, Kryptonite is still an industry leader and openly addresses the Bic pen scandal on their website:
"During the fall of 2004, it was discovered that the industry-standard tubular cylinder, used in most brands of portable security products, could be compromised, at times, with a household item. Kryptonite flew into action, created a voluntary lock exchange program and replaced over 400,000 locks in 21 countries for free. To do this, the company redesigned the equivalent of 9 years worth of new products in just 10 short months. Kryptonite is the only company in the world that offered such a comprehensive plan to customers, taking its 'legendary customer service' pledge to new heights."
One blogger managed to bruise the reputation -- albeit temporarily -- of an international, highly-regarded brand and cost them millions of dollars. It wouldn't be the last time.
Amazon: Know your inventory
Blogger Cecily Kellogg wants her readers to know: She was not the one to suggest boycotting web retail behemoth, Amazon. In her words: "Here's what happened. Early in the day [on November 10, 2010], my friend Tiffany sent me a link about something horrid -- a "how to" guide for pedophiles -- being offered for sale on Amazon (it was offered for the first time on 10/28/10.) She was upset, and asked me to get the word out." So, Cecily turned to her nearly 50,000 followers and tweeted this:
This wasn't the first time Amazon had been called out for peddling pedophilia-related products: In 2002, the company was criticized for selling "Understanding Boys and Boy Lovers." They fought back with First Amendment arguments, stating that though they didn't "endorse" the book, "people have the right to choose their own reading material."
Still, whether it was the creepy cover art of the book, the Twitter element (nonexistent in 2002), or simply the extremely offensive nature of the book's topic, Amazon got slammed by mommy bloggers, tech bloggers, and Twitter users calling for a boycott. Things weren't helped when Gawker reported all the coverage had resulted in a 101,000 percent sales boost of the book.
At first, Amazon stuck to their guns, as they had in the 2002, saying: "Amazon believes it is censorship not to sell certain books simply because we or others believe their message is objectionable. Amazon does not support or promote hatred or criminal acts, however, we do support the right of every individual to make their own purchasing decisions." Eventually, headlines screaming "Amazon defends 'Pedophile's Guide" couldn't be tolerated any longer, and the retailer removed the book from the site.
Like all of the bloggers in this article, Kellogg received plenty of abuse on her end. She was attacked relentlessly on Twitter and through her blog. At the end of it all, she had this to say: "...A retailer deciding not to carry a title because it promotes illegal activity is not censorship... I will defend unto my death the right of this twisted, evil [man] to publish his book. I, however, also have the right to question the wisdom of any retailer that is willing to sell it. That would be me exercising MY right to free speech, after all."
McDonald's: Bloggers always read the label
McDonald's has never been viewed as a purveyor of healthy foods. Yet, after years of being called out in books and in movies, it seemed like they trying in earnest to add more wholesome choices to their lineup -- specifically, with a "bowl full of wholesome."
McDonald's has tried to wave the healthy flag in the past and failed. Remember when people found out their salads had just as many calories as their Big Macs? Food blogger Mark Bittman acknowledged a "feeling of inevitability" when opening his February 22 post "How to Make Oatmeal...Wrong." He went on to describe how the company that "from a nutritional perspective... can do almost nothing right" had messed up one of the most east-to make, "minimally processed, profoundly nourishing...and inexpensive" foods out there. After describing what was in McDonald's oatmeal -- "oats, sugar, sweetened dried fruit, cream and 11 weird ingredients you would never keep in your kitchen" -- Bittman begins his takedown in earnest, outlining not only how easy, fast, and cheap it is to make oatmeal yourself, but also dismissing any excuses to go to McDonald's for their oatmeal.
Bittman's post immediately gained traction online, providing commentators with excellent sound bites like "more sugar than a Snickers bar" and "more calories than a McDonald's hamburger." McDonald's replied by saying that customers could order the oatmeal without the fruit, sugar, and cream. Most embarrassing for them, however, was the claim of Julia Braun, the company's dietitian: "people also add ingredients to the oatmeal you buy in the store" -- maple syrup and dried fruit, perhaps, but not likely the "caramel color" and "sodium phosphate" listed in their oatmeal.
Will McDonald's suffer financially because of Bittman's post? They haven't yet. The company recently reported a boost in sales they attributed to the addition of oatmeal on the menu. However, Bittman definitely chipped away at the company's campaign to look better nutritionally, while providing his take of McDonald's motivation behind the product:
"Why would McDonald's, which appears every now and then to try to persuade us that it is adding "healthier" foods to its menu, take a venerable ingredient like oatmeal and turn it into expensive junk food? Why create a hideous concoction of 21 ingredients, many of them chemical and/ or unnecessary? Why not try, for once, to keep it honest?
[Because] McDonald's wants to get people in the store. Once a day, once a week, once a month, the more the better, of course, but routinely. And if you buy oatmeal, they're O.K. with that. But they know that, once inside, you'll probably opt for a sausage biscuit anyway. And you won't be much worse off."
In an age when authenticity is king, consumers want transparency, and companies are supposed to care about more than making money, that's got to hurt.
American Apparel: Chauvinism is blogger bait
It's been a tough year for American Apparel. On top of financial problems and a CEO who can't seem to keep his hands to himself, one of the company's internal documents leaked to Gawker last June described hiring and firing policies "largely based on employee photos." The company responded by denying those claims and offering up CEO Dov Charney's phone number: "American Apparel has built itself on being open and honest, so we're happy to answer questions and personally address the concerns of anyone interested in having a dialog."
After noting that the voicemail for the number given was not yet set up, Gawker reached out to former American Apparel employees for their experiences and struck gold. "These [biases] based on attractiveness are 100 percent accurate;" "To hire someone we have to take their photo (one close up, one full length) and send it to [email protected] requesting that they be 'approved;'" and "Girls with short hair, fringes, heavy make up will not be approved," were among the responses. Employees' first-hand accounts of sexism and racism conflicted with the company's motto, which includes "pioneering industry standards of social responsibility in the work place."
Remember all those articles telling you about keeping your brand's story consistent throughout your company? This is the kind of stuff they're talking about.
Maytag: Don't mess with moms
Recently profiled in the New York Times, Heather Armstrong didn't start out as a "mommy blogger." She began her blogging career in 2001 at age 25, pre-children. Still, she kept it up and eventually became the lone blogger on Forbes' list of the Most Influential Women in Media. Unfortunately, one customer service representative had no idea about any of this.
Before she had her second child, Armstrong and her husband spent $1,300 on a brand new Maytag washing machine with a 10-year warranty. Shortly after getting it home, it stopped working. At first, Armstrong tackled the problem as any of us would have: She called the place where she bought the machine. They referred her to a Maytag policy about replacements, which led her to get in touch with Maytag herself. This didn't happen overnight -- by the time a sleep-deprived Armstrong was compelled to take her case to the Twittersphere, the machine hadn't worked for two months and the house smelled like diapers. Exasperated and exhausted, the damning exchange went like this:
"Okay then, I say, almost begging at this point, almost to the point of tears, is there anyone I can talk to who might see what I've been through and understand? And here's where I say, do you know what Twitter is? Because I have over a million followers on Twitter. If I say something about my terrible experience on Twitter do you think someone will help me? And she says in the most condescending tone and hiss ever uttered, 'Yes, I know what Twitter is. And no, that will not matter.'"
After getting off the phone, Armstrong hammered out several strongly worded tweets condemning Maytag and their products. Hours later, she got a call from Maytag's parent company, WhirlpoolCorp, filled with profuse apologies. The next day, a repair man came and fixed the broken machine. To top it off, Maytag competitor Bosch got in touch with her to offer her one of their machines. Instead of taking it herself -- "I could afford the $1,300 I spent on that washer" -- she suggested they donate one to a local shelter instead, which they did.
Maytag bent over backwards to avoid the wrath of the so-called mommy bloggers, perhaps learning from the infamous beating they gave Motrin a year earlier. One thing's certain: The power that bloggers can yield is officially undeniable.
Lucia Davis is associate editor at iMediaConnection.
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