How Your Company Can Fight 'Brand Terrorism'

How Your Company Can Fight 'Brand Terrorism'

[The following is excerpted from Ethical Marketing & The New Consumer by Chris Arnold]

Many marketing experts will tell you that one of the most significant changes over the last 10 years has been the power moving from the brands back to the consumer. People power, as many brands have discovered, is not only changing the way they market, but forcing companies to change the way they do things.

The web and social networking have made it easy for people to cluster together as a force to be reckoned with. A single lonely voice of objection can now soon mass into thousands and even millions.

Retailers, intensely worried about keeping the faith of their customers in the face of tough competition, will force brands to change their messages, packaging, ingredients or sources to avoid upsetting their customers.

Hellman's mayonnaise offers a good example: Until recently no one had asked them where they got their eggs from. But the one supermarket did and threatened to delist them if they didn't switch over to free-range. Others followed. Unilever had no choice, but still managed to turn it into an ad campaign making them look oh-so-ethical. That's ethical spin for you.

Recently the scandal of the News of the World hacking into people's phones brought a new low for the newspaper industry -- as if people didn't think bad enough of them already. But it was the power of the people, and groups like Mumsnet (with over 1.5 million members) that did the most damage as they demanded brands withdraw advertising from the paper. Brands, desperate not to upset large groups of customers and powerful social groups agreed.

"A kid with a $600 dollar laptop can bring down a six-million-dollar campaign." I've put this quote in many blogs to highlight a factor I call "Brand Terrorism." These may seem strong words but you can't underestimate the power of social networking, especially when the truth goes against the marketing message. The truth, whether it's used maliciously or just factually, can hurt. Worse, it can cost you millions and your reputation.

Fact is, we believe people mare than corporations. One survey from TNS revealed that just 17 percent of people believe ads, and only 14 percent believed ads making green claims. But almost all of us believe our friends, family and workmates. And thanks to the web, we can talk to all of them in moments.

Just take the case of Kryptonite bike locks. They made great locks that couldn't be broken. Well, that was what they claimed in their marketing, until someone posted an online video of one of their U-locks being opened with a simple Bic pen. Disaster. Word spread and the company fell into a big black hole.

"Look behind the label" was an early campaign from Marks & Spencer, but if we really looked behind many brands we wouldn't like what we saw -- even the ethical ones (sorry, the ones we think are ethical; there is a difference). It's impossible to tick all the boxes. Big corporate brands can only do so much, and it's essentially impossible to be ethically pure, especially if your main focus is delivering more profit year on year to your shareholders.

If you're looking for some eco-dirt, it's easy to find one small point (an ethical Achilles Heel) and use it to have a go. And now we have a mass of morally driven would-be journalists using blogs and Twitter, all of whom want to reveal the truth and be the author of the next eco-ethical scandal.

That's bad enough news for big corporations, and now the mass media is picking these stories up fast off the social networks. The Sun attacked Starbucks with the front cover headline "Starberks" and another inside, "The great drain robbery."

You may well be expecting a shock horror story about abuse of workers in the third world or demolishing rainforests, but no. The issue was over a small low-pressure water tap that sits behind the counter and is used to clean spoons. It's left running continuously and as a consequence (figures from the Sun) an estimated 23.4 million liters of water goes down the drain every day -- enough water to supply the drought-ridden African population of Namibia.

Most people will be thinking "Namibia, where's that?" There's lots of desert there. The population is just 1,987,000 (2003 census). "Millions of gallons down plughole, enough to keep a country alive," reads the sub-headline. Of course, the astute observer will note that, because that water can't reasonably be transported to Namibia, it's an irrelevant comparison.

But when you look behind the Sun's label you can see how they are using it to spin their version of the story. We've all heard of "greenwash;" here's "anti-brandwash."

Being big and American, Starbucks, like McDonald's, gets a lot of unfair criticism, but they are very clever when dealing with it. With one of the largest fan bases on Facebook, over 23 million "likes," it simply lets its fans (known as 'Brand Fans') know what's being said against it and leaves it to them. You can attack a brand, but not its fans. Brands fight with lawyers, fans fight with passion.

By contrast, when UK sandwich shop Pret got attacked for selling a share to McDonald's they briefed all their staff on how to respond to the situation and gave them the truth. As customers paid for their sandwiches and freshly squeezed juice, many couldn't help but comment on the purchase. But staff were able to respond face-to-face and the propaganda war was quickly won. Very smart.

What starts as a small group can soon become massive and so influential that big brands have to listen. ColaLife, created by Simon Berry, all started as an idea on Facebook and exploded. Berry has been trying to get Coke to use their vast distribution network for the greater good, potentially saving hundreds of thousands of people.

"Our idea is that Coca-Cola could use their distribution channels (which are amazing in developing countries) to distribute rehydration salts to the people who need them desperately," Berry has said. "Maybe by dedicating one compartment in every 10 crates as 'the life-saving' compartment?" The idea gives new meaning to Coke's famous straplines, "Life tastes good" and "Coke adds life."

Simon's campaign has gathering a mass of supporters by using social networking to spread the word and create a digital community of activists -- thousands have joined the group on Facebook.

This case points out how one person can very quickly gain enough momentum to be as powerful as a major charity in applying pressure to large corporations; a new concept of David and Goliath.

Whereas the old model placed charities as the champions of a particular issue or cause, now any passionate driven member of the public can soon gather a force behind them and push for change. There is some evidence that issue sites are gaining more followers than traditional charity sites. Could common causes replace charitable organizations as the main influencers in the future?

There's one rule and only one rule -- be honest. If you lie, it will catch you out. And remember, being "economical with the truth" may work for a politician, but the public won't buy it. You can't argue the case, because once you have been found out -- your brand is dead. And the shareholders won't thank you.

Trust is everything and once gone it's like gone for good. The consumer has a lot of power, more than you because people will believe people first. And with social networking as a tool they can bring you down like David did Goliath.