Can you ‘control’ your brand online?

Imagine this.

You are the VP of marketing. Your new product line is a series of children’s t-shirts, with edgy and quite controversial slogans on the front. Soon after launch, an influential blogger and media personality slams the t-shirts. She charges that they are in extremely poor taste in a world struggling to cope with the early sexualisation of children and an increasing online problem with child pornography.

Almost immediately, the online news media picks up the story. The reports are quite factual but mention the blogger by name and in some instances link to her article. It doesn’t take long for the issue to become a trending topic on Twitter.

Or you are a fast food company. You create an ad for the Australian market, which shows a lone Aussie cricket fan, at the cricket (which is playing at the time in Australia), surrounded by exuberant West Indies fans barracking loudly for their team. After a comment about an uncomfortable situation, he hands out fast food to his fellow spectators to break the ice and settle things down.

The ad is one of a series where the main protagonist uses the same tactic with a number of other cricket attendees. While it is not released outside Australia, in no time it has been posted on You Tube (in breach of the company’s copyright btw), and is picked up by the US internet commentators. It is slammed as racist, perpetuating a stereotype, and the company withdraws it from broadcast.

These are real stories. There are many more organisations that have had similar experiences.

Social media gurus will tell you that if you don’t engage in response to these circumstances, then you risk losing control of your brand and/or your message.

The challenge for senior management in organisations today is that the concept of ‘control’, in relation to brand and message online, is a dramatically different beast than it used to be.  Once upon a time there was authorised content, put out by a company. We relied on the traditional news media to ferret out the stories and bring them to light. The timing was controlled by the channels used. Now anyone can raise the issues. While there is still legal protections in the case of defamation, opinion and factual experience can be freely shared by a great many more people.  

If you have described social media participation to your senior management as controlling your brand and message, then I’d suggest you might be in for a surprise.

I would offer that it comes in several parts:

  1. We should participate online to build our knowledge of and capability in social media.
  2. We must build our knowledge and capability of social media to enable us to act appropriately should there be an issue, or a reaction involving our organisation.
  3. Our branding and advertising must take account of the fact that the market or channel we are targeting is not the only one that will see it, participate in it, or comment on it.

It’s the new version of the old crisis management plan. Only now the speed with which it may happen will astound you.

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