02 Mar Brand protection in the age of customer engagement
Brands of every sort – from the globally familiar to the local politician du jour – are being savaged, attacked, extolled, and venerated with a speed never seen before. The digital tools of our age provide numerous new channels for brand commentary, both positive and negative, and these multiplying channels place daunting new demands on corporate and political “brand managers.” They now must proactively protect brand equity while also responding to attacks with greater speed and aggression.
So what is a brand? A brand today is all about engagement. It is about capturing consumers’ hearts, minds, and wallets (or votes) throughout the purchase and relationship cycle, at each and every “touchpoint” between the consumer and the company’s product or service.
“Old school” is out
Effective brand managers now realize that old-style concepts of brand need to be re-thought. Brian Phipps of “Brands Create Customers” does a nice job of laying out the pitfalls of old school branding vs. the benefits of new school branding. Among his insights: old school branding is based on a top-down approach to creating and managing brands. It seeks to build perceptions, not value; and it assumes a passive customer who is simply waiting to be sold.
New-style branding is all about customer engagement and involvement. Today’s consumer generates his or her own brand commentary and content through blogs, online videos, podcasts, and social networks. And this personal consumer involvement in branding only continues to expand and metastasize in our new digital era.
In the consumer sector, we’ve seen brand crises, attacks, and leaks that have generated lots of buzz, both pro and con, from consumers and from the companies, themselves. JetBlue is a case in point. When recent weather events and lack of contingency planning led the airline into a spiraling downfall in customer service, JetBlue founder and CEO David Neeleman responded promptly with apologetic postings to customers on his flight log. The company also released a widely viewed video clip on YouTube, created and released a new Customer Bill of Rights (PDF), and purchased full-page ads in the New York Times.
Following shortly on the heels of an earlier crisis with E.coli outbreaks at Taco Bells in four states, parent company Yum Brands recently endured vivid video coverage of rats running wild in one of its New York City KFC/Taco Bell franchises. The company rapidly responded by claiming this was an isolated incident specific to that outlet.
Another company recently facing the brand heat was Starbucks. In this case, a heartfelt memo from Chairman Howard Schultz on “the commoditization of the Starbucks experience” was leaked through StarbucksGossip.com, only to be amplified by other bloggers (1,468 results in Technorati when this article was written) and picked up by the mainstream media (The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, CNBC, etcetera). Starbucks has responded by creating a section in their About Us website content called Rumor Response.
Beyond these fleeting crises, a more continuous flow of brand commentary now emerges from a growing number of daily blogs authored by brand detractors and supporters. These blogs, much like StarbucksGossip.com, create great potential for both mischief and kudos for a company brand. On the brand advocacy side, two examples of supportive blogs include Ohio IKEA with their tagline “following IKEA news and gossip for the Buckeye State since 2004,” and “Slave to Target,” chronicling a love for the iconic Target discount stores.
On the disparaging side, Wal-Mart is confonted by the well-funded WakeUpWalMart.com (over 325,000 subscribers) as well as Wal-Mart Watch. In addition to brand-specific blogs, we’ve seen consumers take control with the growth of generalist blogs that reveal the blemishes and warts of a wide range of companies. An example is the Consumerist, which recently posted “14 Hewlett Packard Secrets from a former Employee,” a list of inside information on HP products and tips to help consumers understand and deal with HP (e.g just say “agent” to get out of the voice mail phone tree).
Another area where we’ve seen consumers take control of a brand’s story is in the increasing number of dedicated sites or sections of commerce sites that allow for consumer reviews of products and services. Amazon does this with their consumer-generated product reviews. Buy.com has created their own social shopping site called Yub.com where consumers can share, chat, review, and shop. TripAdvisor‘s consumer reviews have become an invaluable aid for trip planners searching for evaluations of vacation venues and hotels around the world.
Getting swift-boated, blog style
In the political arena, spurious attacks have been made against Barack Obama alleging that he went to school in a madrassa in Indonesia. On the other side of the aisle, a new political video compiles Mitt Romney’s “evolving positions” as he re-calibrates his social values to attract the right wing. More recently, a 77 slide PowerPoint presentation (Boston Globe registration required) that allegedly maps out Romney’s campaign strategy was leaked to the press.
For both of these evolving “political brands,” the response was quick – surrogates and the candidates themselves rapidly counter-attacked, striving to re-position the discourse to their point of view. Although initial damage-control efforts appear to have been successful, the jury is still out on the long-term impact of these attacks.
Neither of these new political “brands” wanted to face a decline in their product life-cycle like that faced by Massachusetts Senator John Kerrey during the last Presidential election. Memories are still raw of how successfully the “flip flop” moniker was attached to Kerrey by his opponents, and also of the infamous video-taped “macaca” incident that brought former Virginia Senator George Allen to unexpected defeat in his 2006 Virginia senatorial campaign.
Given all these examples of how consumer-generated actions can impact your brand, what should your company do? Here are some tips and recommendations: First, understand and audit all of the components of your brand. Then upgrade your electronic media investments to effectively communicate with stakeholders, and develop contingency and crisis communications plans that incorporate the use of traditional external media as well as Web 2.0 channels (blogs, video, discussion boards).
Continuously monitor and respond to positive and negative noise about your brand in the blogosphere and relevant discussion boards. This can be done via your own online tracking with keyword RSS feeds, by hiring brand-monitoring consultants, or by using electronic services provided by companies like Madison-based NameProtect.
Finally, cultivate relationships with influential bloggers that work in your category so that your story is appropriately represented, generate your own content in a transparent fashion on your site, and always be prepared for the unexpected! Taken together, these steps will help protect your existing brand equity while positioning you to survive new consumer-based attacks on your brand.
Previous articles by Paul Gibler
• Wireless wizardry coming to the small screen
• Paul Gibler: Podcasts – time, place, and player shifted media
• Paul Gibler: Virtual communities make online connections
• Paul Gibler: Lights, cameras, action: The state of online video
• Paul Gibler: Joining the wiki wacki world
• Paul Gibler: Would you like your music (and data) mashed?
• Paul Gibler: Cutting through the blog fog
• Paul Gibler: No RSS feed? You’re fired!
• Paul Gibler: Social computing in the Web 2.0 era
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