Brand #Fail

Saddled by a wave of online faux pas, marketers struggle to break through the wall of consumer criticism

Social media? For too many brands, it might feel more like anti-social media.

It’s no secret that the rush of consumers and advertisers to Facebook and Twitter has made it ever easier for the masses to be heard—and for brands to mess up.

The minefield of customer commentary has been a part of the conversation since the dawn of social media, and the various high-profile brand blowups over the years have been well-documented. Considering that so many marketers have learned the hard way that consumers have a voice—and they’re going to use it—one might think that brands would have gotten savvy by now. And yet, a surprising number seem to have still missed the memo: Tread lightly—you’re just a visitor here.

“One of the things that makes bad social media marketing or advertising worse than bad TV or bad print is you’re going into the consumer’s backyard. This is their place,” says Henry Copeland, CEO of ad network Blogads, which over the last four years has run the annual, tongue-in-cheek competition #Suxorz, celebrating the worst in social media “fails.”

With a growing number of advertisers still learning the lesson the hard way, it has become clear that none of them is absolutely safe. “I cannot think of a brand that doesn’t live with some type of risk of a crisis erupting in social and digital media,” says John Bell, global managing director of Social@Ogilvy, Ogilvy & Mather’s recently formed social media practice.

Josh Bernoff, an analyst at Forrester Research and co-author of the social media business books Groundswell and Empowered, notes that the bar for exposure remains extremely low. “If a brand has customers, it could potentially have a problem,” he says.

Many social media firestorms have ignited around a company’s failure on the service front. Take blogger Jeff Jarvis’ “Dell Hell,” a series of online rants about his crappy laptop, or Canadian musician Dave Carroll’s 2009 YouTube hit “United [Airlines] Breaks Guitars.” Still other dustups have involved lamebrained or even outright offensive marketing messages. And as some unfortunate marketers have found, once an offending message gets out, it’s next to impossible to quickly clear the air.

This past March, Belvedere Vodka drew a torrent of outrage after posting an apparently pro-rape ad to its Facebook and Twitter streams. The visual: a grinning man yanking a frightened woman toward him. The headline: “Unlike some people…Belvedere always goes down smoothly.” The brand quickly pulled the ad, issued an apology and made a contribution to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network.

Ogilvy’s Bell calls the Belvedere ad an isolated instance of “poor judgment” somewhere along the marketing chain. As soon as the company’s top ranks became aware of it, “they reacted quickly in a way that showed what they truly believed and what their honest values are,” he says.

Yet the brand’s response, as timely and as clear as it might have been, failed to quiet many critics. Still-furious consumers dismissed the donation to the anti-sexual violence nonprofit as a PR stunt. A few took to the organization’s Facebook page to berate it for accepting the cash. Meanwhile, the actress whose image appeared in the ad filed suit against Belvedere.

Navigating one’s way to safety from a social media tsunami is even more challenging when a marketer gets entangled in controversy through no fault of its own.

After details of the Trayvon Martin killing began to emerge, Skittles and Arizona Iced Tea (which the victim was reported as carrying on him when he was shot) became unwitting symbols in the racially charged tragedy. Critics began lobbing claims on Twitter and Facebook that the brands were profiting from all the exposure. Both companies released measured statements offering their condolences to Martin’s family—and announcing that they would have no further comment on the matter.

It wasn’t enough for some, who still demanded that the brands donate the profits they had allegedly made from the tragedy.

But, experts say, there wasn’t much more the brands could do. As Bell notes, “There was no way for them to enter such an explosive conversation and expect to do well in it.” At best, they might have stopped the presses on their regular advertising, too. “Ironically, if I were in that position, I would actually pull back on some of the marketing campaigns,” says Bernoff.

Even a seemingly innocuous attempt to capitalize on social media’s influence can blow up in a marketer’s face. In January, McDonald’s saw #McDStories, a hashtag meant to showcase farmers who grow its produce, get hijacked by Twitter users posting less-than-appetizing messages about their experiences at the fast food chain. McDonald’s tried again in March, attempting to generate buzz around its St. Patrick’s Day-themed, green-colored milkshake. What resulted was as much mockery as meme.

The opportunities for advertisers to make mistakes—or to simply appear tone deaf—have multiplied as they juggle the ever-complex media mix, pushing out more messages through more channels at a faster pace.

On top of that, it might be impossible for even the most beloved of brands to avoid flak altogether. “Social media is a pressure cooker,” says Copeland. “The hundreds of thousands, or millions, of people out there are going to take your idea, and they’re going to try to shred it or tear it apart and find what’s weak or stupid in it.”

Why is that? Among other things, the social Web is about self-expression, as Copeland points out, a place where users are competing against one another for the pithiest, wittiest—and yes, most incendiary—observations. “You’ve got a lot of wise guys out there who are going to take potshots at you,” he says.

None of that is to say there aren’t measures that a marketer can take toward protecting itself. So-called social media “listening tools” from the likes of Radian6, Visible Technologies and Crimson Hexagon can help a brand and its agencies monitor Internet chatter, gauge sentiments around a brand and alert a brand when a storm is brewing.

Companies also should staff up to better manage messages and feedback and design guidelines for when to assemble a crisis-response team, says David Armano, evp of global innovation and integration at Edelman’s digital practice.

Scenario mapping—or designing flowcharts outlining recommended plans of action in the case of a social media mishap—is another aid. “All these things are really just preparedness tools,” Armano says.

The bottom line: Responding to critics via social media platforms requires corporations—those slow-to-change, conservative behemoths—to adjust according to a new media world order.

“A lot of what causes a crisis or an issue hasn’t changed. Companies have problems. They make mistakes sometimes,” says Armano. “Social is disruptive because it amplifies these things and adds a speed and velocity to them that we haven’t seen before. A lot of brands are grappling with dealing with that because they’re not prepared.”

Getting clients up to tempo remains a particular pain point for agencies. “Part of the challenge for agencies is working with brands that aren’t necessarily structured to deal with some of the unexpected consumer responses that are happening in real time, so you can effectively sway the conversations in the right way,” says Matt Britton, founder and CEO of social media shop Mr. Youth.

At the same time, there’s a danger in moving too quickly. “Part of succeeding in this new, fast-paced media universe is taking chances and experimenting because there’s another way to fail in all this, and that’s to be totally silent, totally conservative and miss opportunities,” says Copeland.

Adds Forrester’s Bernoff: “The amount of advertising clutter is at record levels. The daring ad that breaks through it is the one that’s at most risk for annoying people.”

A fundamental understanding of the power balance between marketer and consumer that social media has wrought is a key first step on the part of top executives, experts say.

“Even just having a basic page on Facebook is a game changer because it’s not just a marketing channel, it’s a communications ecosystem,” says Armano.

That means brands must not only prepare themselves for but also be comfortable with a certain amount of dissent. No matter how well a PR team might be prepared for a crisis, a marketer must respect the new reality, which the consumer is driving. Otherwise, says Armano, “You can still have someone senior at an organization hear about a [consumer’s] Facebook post and say, ‘We need to delete that.’”

Any brand manager who might have a notion to censor user comments would do well to familiarize himself with the ChapStick effect. In October, the baffled brand landed at the center of a particularly nasty dustup, one sparked by a relatively innocuous ad featuring a woman bending over a couch in search of her missing lip balm. The controversy only happened after ChapStick attempted to scrub critical reactions from its Facebook page—this, despite the ad urging those very customers to “Be heard” on its Facebook page.

“A lot of people judged [the ad] to be sexist because of the position she was in,” recalls David Jones, global CEO of Havas and author of Who Cares Wins: Why Good Business Is Better Business. “Whether it was or it wasn’t is less the point. The point is after having asked people to come join the conversation on Facebook, ChapStick then started deleting the posts…It doesn’t take a genius to work out that that’s probably not going to go down too well.”

The first commandment in the Marketing Via Social Media Bible may be, as it happens, “Do not censor.”

Says Copeland: “Deleting your detractors is one of the worst things you can do. It riles them up all the more…You just give them lots of ammunition, and the folks who want to weigh in on your behalf aren’t going to.”

On the other hand, those weighing in on a marketer’s behalf may be that marketer’s greatest asset. “The best way brands can deal with negative social media issues is to have their consumers fight the battle for them,” says Mr. Youth’s Britton.

Platforms such as Crowdtap, which Mr. Youth initially funded and incubated, help brands cultivate positive relationships with their most loyal and influential consumers. Through these tools, marketers give consumers rewards such as exclusive access to content or products in exchange for promoting the brand to friends or answering surveys. A brand can even use the technology to test a risky ad on a small group of consumers before broadcasting it widely.

By using tools like Crowdtap, brands are also developing ties with advocates they can mobilize to counter the digital howls of critics. Without them, Britton argues, marketers “are going into a battle without ground troops.”

Naturally, charming consumers preemptively isn’t a new strategy, but in the discipline of social marketing, it is an essential one. “With the power of social media to amplify regular voices, that matters much more now than ever before,” says Ogilvy’s Bell.

Havas’ Jones contends that social media has created new rules for business: transparency, authenticity and speed. That means social responsibility has to become a first priority for companies.

“You cannot have an image that is disconnected from your reality,” he says. “You need to put social responsibility at the core and heart of business strategy, absolutely at the heart of it, rather than leaving it in the silo. If you’re doing something [good] because it’s a marketing tactic or part of the CSR department, it will backfire on you.”

Despite the stumbles, some advertisers are doing it right. Jones mentions Domino’s, which in 2009 began a brand revitalization that addressed both its own social media crisis (erupting after a viral video of two employees making unwelcome additions to its food surfaced) and the broad perception that the chain’s pizza crusts tasted like cardboard.

In a tactic worthy of the Marketing Hall of Fame, Domino’s launched a campaign that bluntly acknowledged its poor reputation and publicized its mission to improve. And in keeping with its new transparent tack, the brand last year ran customer reviews from Twitter—both the good and the bad—on a billboard in Times Square.

Armano points to Dell, which, he says, has become a model for brands hearing and responding to their customers by way of social media. The computer giant employs a large staff dedicated to monitoring discussions around its brand and has in place clear processes for addressing issues as they arise.

And Britton cites Nike. Despite having been saddled with negative stories about working conditions in its factories, the brand has managed to build up an army of loyal customers to protect it.

“When some of [Nike’s] workplace actions get called into question, these people rush to the defense of the brand and make sure both sides of the story are being heard,” he says. “If both sides of the story are being heard, it becomes less of a firestorm and more of a healthy, active dialogue.”

That, Britton stresses, is “really all a brand can hope for in a social space.” 

@GabrielBeltrone Gabriel Beltrone is a frequent contributor to Adweek.