Panelists Laud Defensive Branding To Curtail Online Damage

Defensive branding is nearly impossible unless companies have someone inside devoted solely to watching things. And the job might start with the CEO--whose role is, in part, to manage risk. Making the task that much harder, said panelists at Monday's "Consumer-Generated Media: The Age of Defensive Branding," is the long online memory of PR fiascos, thanks to search results that never forget.

David Dunn, GM/director of worldwide operations at global PR firm Edelman, one of the three panelists at the OMMA Conference and Expo session, said he was shocked that major companies whose brand reputations have taken a hit recently didn't see it coming, nor did they gird their loins for it.

"It's striking that we should have toy and food recalls [because of] outsourcing. The idea that these companies put their trust into others and didn't double-check is astonishing," he says. "And what the social media allows people to do is [to] jump all over companies when they make a mistake."



Rob Key, founder/CEO of Converseon, an Internet social-network marketing company, said a mistake will last forever, thanks to the potential for search results to continue to reveal--within the first three pages--fiascos, bad press or misconceptions long after they happened and been solved.

"Even when issues go away, Google 'remembers' them," he said. "We started looking a year and a half ago at Coca-Cola search engine results. On the third page was 'Killer Coke,' conspiracy theory blog about the company's putative operations in Colombia, proven untrue. Unfortunately, there's rubbernecking online where people link to it, and that becomes part of the algorithm. It was dismissed in court, but Google results still serve it. It will be there for a long time."

Max Kalehoff, vice president/marketing at Nielsen BuzzMetrics, kicked off the panel with a generally dour look at the online chatter about marketing. "There's a massive level of skepticism represented by some of the vernacular around advertising: 'spam,' 'bombarded,' 'soliciting', 'fraudulent', 'deceptive'; consumer skepticism is at a high level from blogs, boards, forums, video."

"We have entered the age of defensive branding: the art and science of protecting and promoting your brand when you have less control," he said.

Kalehoff listed the platforms from consumer blogs, media blogs, marketer blogs, audio blogs, video blogs and the latest, social networking, manifested in the largest marketing events of late around consumer-generated content.

It is urgent, he said, that companies do defensive branding because "Dissatisfaction is viral. Adversaries and activist groups are empowered in new ways, and every consumer is a walking surveillance camera and computer router."

The good news, he said, is that brand Web sites are the second most trusted source after consumer recommendation.

Key said companies must begin by listening. "If you aren't listening, you can't engage with it."

Edelman's Dunn added that brands need to create an organization dedicated to social media, and also they need to teach marketers how to interpret raw data. "Often the agencies are presenting research reports, and the onus is on the brand to interpret. So there needs to be content expertise at the brand marketing level, to add to marketing expertise."

Key added that companies are not structured for that. "We are in a post-marketing discipline world. So, unless you have an organization that transcends silos, you can't react." Specifically, he explained, companies need the equivalent of a director of social media. "Two of our clients have created that role. This person interfaces with the CMO and CEO and tries to be that glue between disciplines. If I were to ask this room next year how many social media directors are in attendance, I hope more hands go up."

Key and Dunn both offered examples of social media strategies done wrong, then corrected. Key said Amway is a case study in why creating one's own 'living room' online is better by far than trying to subvert someone else's. "There were folks criticizing Amway in a blog Amway didn't control," he said. "Amway tried 'Googlebombing,' basically creating a lot of sites to displace the anti-Amway blog out of search results," he says--adding that the strategy didn't work. "They realized that if there's a conversation and it's negative, it's better to have it in your living room."

Amway created, where consumers could disagree with company policies. "When you do that, you are having the conversation in your living room and set the rules. But you must tolerate criticism."

Panelists agreed that social-network marketing shouldn't be perceived by marketers as solely a reflexive activity, limited to PR, but one that can add value to R&D, customer service, and marketing.

Said Dunn: "We work with a software maker who was launching a major product, and so created a large-scale engagement program," he said. "The program brought consumers into participation in product development. When the product had issues, the online community supported the product."

He noted that P&G has said 50% of its product innovation will come from outside the company in coming years, "so social media isn't just about taking, it's about bringing value to company in ways you didn't think of before."

Added Key: "The issue is, you have to tread carefully. Creating an environment online is good to do, but you have to establish rules and benchmarks."

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