In the court of public opinion, failing to identify and effectively combat a negative rumor doesn't make it any less harmful to the brand it's targeting. Through social media, these persistent brand myths are often read by millions of consumers in a matter of minutes and can seriously threaten the integrity of a brand. In fact, 81 percent of consumers are influenced by their friend's social media posts, so if a brand allows public opinion spiral out of control, word-of-mouth could lead to a lot of lost business. Two companies that have been seriously threatened by negative and untrue rumors are Starbucks and Heineken. When faced with potentially damaging blows to their reputations, both Starbucks and Heineken focused on a key demographic of fans to help dispel these threatening myths: their advocates. By identifying potential threats, getting to know their brand communities, and building a base of advocates willing to rise up in a time of need, brands can combat persistent brand myths and come out stronger for it.
Types of brand myths
In order to defend against an enemy, a brand must first understand what it's fighting. There are two main types of myths.
Heineken's stretched truths
In 2012, Heineken learned the hard way that a picture is worth a thousand words when a photo surfaced of multiple Heineken banners hung above a dogfighting match at a Mongolian nightclub. Heineken's brand team soon learned that the photo was taken after a Heineken sponsored event in the same nightclub the night before, but the club failed to take the banners down before the dogfight. Animal rights activists immediately sent the photo on a viral loop, leaving the global beer brand defending its reputation against an angry digital swarm.
Starbucks' misinterpreted values
In 2004, a Marine Sergeant circulated an email accusing Starbucks of being unpatriotic. He asserted that they didn't support the war in Iraq when they refused a group of Marines coffee beans they had requested in a letter to the company. In contacting the author, the company learned the email was based on nothing more than hearsay and spread quickly through the passionate network of veterans on the Marine Sergeant's distribution list. This brand myth has been spreading across social networks since 2004, and has gained so much steam since that the company has officially defended itself both in 2005 and in 2013.
Fostering advocacy in brand communities
An army of brand advocates isn't built overnight. A series of actions must be taken in advance to instill passion strong enough to burn through a brand's darkest times. To build advocacy, brands must:
Fans want to know a brand is listening and cares, but the actions taken shouldn't be only about the one-to-one relationship between a brand and its fans. Metcalfe's law dictates that a network is stronger when the relationships within that network are connected to one another. Fostering conversation between fans in a brand community is the best way to ensure it is both active and healthy.
Surprise and delight
By providing fans with genuine, direct and authentic tokens of appreciation, a brand will increase engagement and positive word-of-mouth in its community. Blanket offers and discounts work for fickle fans, but surprising active and loyal community members with a sign of gratitude when they least expect it can go a long way to ensure their longevity as advocates. Try direct links to special content, access to VIP parties and events, or even a small reward that caters to their specific needs.
Champion user-generated content
The statistics overwhelmingly show that word-of-mouth is the most important form of marketing for brands. Brand engagement rises by 28 percent when consumers are exposed to both professional content and user-generated content. Additionally, content created by advocates is considered the most credible form of advertising. User-generated content should not only be shared, but championed within brand communities.
Activating brand advocates
Brand advocates are the best defense a brand has against slanderous rumors and persistent brand myths. Unbound by corporate tape and able to quickly comment while the brand formulates its official response, a brand's base of advocates is "always on" in the defense against trolls and quick adopters. In the immediate to short-term, a brand needs to arm its advocates with the necessary tools to come to its defense.
Create shareable social content
To arm its advocates, Heineken created a detailed infographic that meticulously laid out the events exactly as they occurred leading up to the dog-fight. In addition to the infographic, the brand created an app for its Facebook page with an official statement that can both be commented on by fans and easily shared on the social network.
Use owned media channels
Starbucks provided its advocates with ammunition in the form of a blog post on its website. By hosting the brand's official statement on its site (including a follow up from the original rumor-spreading Marine Sergeant), Starbucks was able to re-share the post and update it eight years later when the unpatriotic rumor reared its ugly head again. Rather than reinvent the wheel, the brand was able to provide new adopters with the context of the nagging myth and once again shut it down.
Consumers trust other consumer recommendations over almost all other forms of advertising, falling just behind friends, family, and branded websites. This can both help and hurt brands, as it means both negative and positive word of mouth can significantly influence perception and purchase behavior. By preparing for the worst with an army of advocates, brands are able to fight fire with fire when harmful rumors sprout. The tactics used by Heineken and Starbucks through their owned and social media channels allowed them to leverage the very passion that fanned the harmful flames to begin with, and collectively put them out.
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