A key objective of social media is to acquire citizen evangelists -- people who love your brand and make their adoration known. But what happens when you attract followers that do real harm to your brand?
When you open up a brand to community participation, you give everyone an opportunity to participate in defining its essence. But your responsibility as a brand steward requires that you protect your brand's interests. Just as attempting total control of a brand is unwise, so too is abdicating your huge potential influence on shaping what it stands for.
Here are three examples of brands that attracted significant "bad followings," along with four tips to avoid problems for your own brand.
A few months back, TLC launched a show called "All American Muslim" about a football-loving, Pop-Tart eating nuclear family that happens to observe Islam. DIY giant Lowe's purchased ads on the show as part of its extensive buy on TLC, not out of any desire to support Muslims, but rather because the show offered an efficient way to reach their target.
Unfortunately for Lowe's, a Christian group interpreted the buy as a political statement -- that Lowe's was supporting a "dangerous religion that condones terrorism and is a real threat to American society." The group threatened to boycott. Lowe's, trying to avoid controversy, acquiesced to their demands and cancelled the buy.
Reaction to the cancellation was mixed. Many were critical of the company for bowing to pressure from anti-Muslim groups. They made such a flurry of comments that this became a mainstream meme. Thus, Lowe's became embroiled in a controversy it had tried to avoid.
Of course, not everyone disagreed with Lowe's decision, but they clearly misinterpreted it. Thousands publicly defended the decision, assuming that the reason for the reversal was that the company shared their virulently anti-Muslim views.
Lowe's original decision to buy ads was economic. Their cancellation was also an economic decision -- a desire to avoid any form of controversy that might anger some of their customers. But by not explaining the rationale for their actions, they became involved in a political and religious controversy. They made large numbers of friends and enemies -- all for seeming to embroil themselves in a controversy that they were trying very hard to avoid.
The iconic plaid of Burberry has long been an oh-so-British, subtle way of conveying personal status. Less in your face than, say, sporting a giant Juicy logo across the butt, the brand's particular plaid conferred arguably more status to its wearers because only high-status people recognized it. The great unwashed just saw plaid, while the gentry saw something very British-elite.
Then, Burberry plaid became a working class status symbol. There's a subculture in Britain nicknamed "chavs" -- there really isn't an American equivalent. A chav is a sort of anti-social, possibly violent slacker. Chavs began sporting Burberry as part of their street ensembles, along with thick gold chains, track suits, and high-end trainers.
For Burberry, this popularization meant thousands of new customers; but at what cost? How can a brand retain its elite customers -- indeed, its elite image -- when one sees the plaid more often on "ASBOs" (slang for people with court-delivered "Anti-Social Behavior Order" judgments) than on the monied people that have been Burberry's blue lifeblood for generations?
For Burberry, the solution seems to have been a recognition that the very notions of status and class have changed. When hiphop can help reestablish Cadillac as a high-status brand after decades of struggling, it's clear that the rules of status have changed and that status brands have to reflect these new realities to grow their businesses. For Burberry, the transition appears to have been accomplished through continuing to associate itself with traditional English class signals -- country life, the city, etc. -- but a much broader marketing effort. Middle- and working-class people are likely to see the brand's ads in their daily lives -- 20 years ago they certainly wouldn't have.
Corporate-level messaging in social can very easily become a sword with a handle that cuts. McDonald's recent experience provides evidence of this. They initiated two programs through Twitter that attracted both positive and negative followings.
First, let's talk about #Meetthefarmers, a program designed to communicate stories about the positive effects of the McDonald's supply chain and the real ingredients in its meals. The hashtag attracted some positive tweets from farmers clearly proud of their products and their business partner. It also attracted -- you guessed it -- a bit of snark. This tweet will give you a sense of some of the tenor of those negative tweets:
"Hey @McDonalds, I'd like to #meetthefarmers who grow the dimethylpolysiloxane & tertiary butylhydroquinone for your fries!"
The hashtag certainly attracted a following, but not the sort of supportive crowd that was desired.
Another program was #McStories, a hashtag designed to get people to tell their best McDonald's experiences. It also attracted a number of rather negative brand portrayals.
To its great credit, McDonald's does not appear to have done the "big corporation flip-out" we've seen from many large companies. They ceased the programs, learned a lesson, and moved on to further experimentation. I suppose when you are McDonald's, some negative tweeting can be seen for what it is, a momentary blip. It does point, however, to the need to be mindful that when you ask consumers to unleash creativity, you are doing just that -- taking something off the leash and out of your control.
Four ways to avoid damage from bad fans
Presented above were three examples and three different situations. In the Lowe's example, intolerant people thought they were helping the brand. With Burberry, the challenge was juggling the different perspectives and values of two sets of consumers. In the third, it was about followers who probably aren't customers, and in all likelihood, had little reach or impact into the customer base.
Whether we like it or not, our brands are being discussed across digital -- "command and control" branding has been replaced by shared brand stewardship in which our customers have a vivid effect on brand perceptions. But the notion of total acquiescence to "consumer control" is moronic. We have the power and responsibility to mitigate damage and find opportunity. We are abdicating our duty as brand stewards if we don't try to amplify positive voices and limit the damage from negative ones.
We can certainly do things to limit the likelihood of suffering damage from bad fans and followers. Here are four ways:
Do a reality check
Whatever brand you represent, you will inevitably find that some of your followers say and do things you wish they wouldn't. Recognizing the difference between suboptimal communication and genuine problems is a critical skill. Also, consider the scale of the threat. For example, my guess is that the decision to pull ads from "All American Muslim" was an overreaction to what was actually a very small number of potential boycotters. There is absolutely no way to absolutely please everyone.
Think about how your actions and programs might be interpreted
Be prepared for predictable blow-back. Is it surprising that "McHaters" wrote critical messages about the golden arches? I think not. By anticipating possible backlash or negative consequences, you can craft better programs and know how to react when problems develop.
Consider whether you can turn bad fans into business opportunity
To be sure, where there's smoke, fire may develop. But also consider the opportunity that the new followers represent. Are there ways to turn a potentially bad situation into a good one? For Burberry, the solution appears to be maintaining elite brand symbols but democratizing the touch-points.
Grow thick skin
It would be nice if we could control every aspect of our brands and the ways people perceive them, but we can't. Trying to actually weakens our influence. If your brand is going to be active in social -- and it is whether or not you have a social program -- you need to be prepared to take a few hits along the way. The thin-skinned who overreact to these hiccups inevitably exacerbate the problems. Because, most of the time, the damage is small and transitory. I have no doubt, for example, that the "McProblems" outlined above made for a few crappy days in the social department. But just a few months later, the situation is forgotten in all but a couple of small trade articles. Hardly a mortal hit, and by taking that punch, the brand learned more about what to do in the future.
In a world of new ways to connect with consumers, there will be triumphs and missteps along the way. What is most important is that we do our best and get better through our experiences.
Jim Nichols is a marketing and strategy contractor in San Francisco.
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