The Consumer:Call and Brand Response

  • by February 2, 2009
The Consumer: Call and Brand Response-Paul PartonThere's a principle in physics called the law of conservation of energy which basically says that in an enclosed system, energy can't be destroyed, it can only be transferred. For example, the energy that is expended in rubbing two sticks together isn't lost, it is simply transferred into heat - a different kind of energy - and the amount of heat is proportional to the amount of effort that is put into rubbing the sticks together.

A couple of episodes over the last few months made me wonder whether there was a parallel in the world of online communities.

All social networks are enclosed systems that generate their own energy. Some of them are small and placid. Some of them are big, vocal and highly energetic. And increasingly, it seems that the most successful brands are those that best harness the energy of these digital societies. I can illustrate this quite simply with a couple of examples that generated significant amounts of energy in their communities and that have been analyzed to death subsequently. One of them harnessed energy well, and one did it badly.

First, the Obama campaign: The communications strategy behind the campaign has been boiled down to the sound bite of, "Involve your converts. Preach to the undecided." While traditional media was employed to preach to undecided voters, social media was used extensively to enlist volunteers and donations and to activate groups of passionate supporters. One of those groups were the young mothers who literally wore their feelings on their sleeves with T-shirts defining them as Obama Mamas. My wife wore one proudly and, in many ways, she was typical of the highly connected, Twittering class of Facebook mothers who use social media to keep track of friends and family and stay connected. The Obama campaign was brilliant in its use of social media to harness the energy of these women and to turn their discontent with the status quo into a call for change.

Interestingly though, about two weeks after the election, the same energy that was harnessed to such positive effect by the Obama campaign was unleashed with fury against Motrin. The same enclosed system, the same energy - but in this instance, the Obama Mamas had become the Motrin Moms.

In case you missed it, a new campaign targeted toward young mothers suggesting "we feel your pain" was misconstrued as being patronizing and derogatory. As a result, a groundswell of discontent developed into a Twitter-storm of complaints. In response, the advertising was pulled, the site was taken down and an apology letter put up in its place. The shame of this episode is not that an advertisement generated ire among its intended target market - that happens - it's that the resulting energy wasn't harnessed and turned to good.
When you look at search stats for the period in question, it shows that the storm blew over in the course of four days or so. Though it rose, at no time during those few days did Motrin search volume ever eclipse the search volume for Tylenol and after the four days, it snapped right back to (very light) pre-Twitter levels.

We live in Twittering times. We communicate in sound bites. And it's difficult to hold our attention for long periods. And what this demonstrates clearly is that although these explosions of passion are noisy, they are short lived and well contained. The people bothered by this episode were mommy bloggers - and although they are hugely passionate, there aren't many of them.

Like ostriches hiding their heads in the sand or possums playing dead when dogs bark at them, Motrin's response to the outcry was a primitive one: quietly wait for it to blow over.

A more evolved response would have been to harness the energy and turn it from negative to positive. That's nothing new. Some of you may remember when Perrier responded so brilliantly to the scare over Benzedrine hidden in its bubbles with a simple commercial that showed a bottle crying tears of condensation. If Motrin had followed a similar path, perhaps they could have transferred that bad energy into good and extended it beyond the twittering class to reach a mainstream audience.

For all brands - and particularly smaller brands - energy is a precious resource. If it's harnessed well, even negative energy can turn out to have a positive effect.

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