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.