Vedashree Khambete
Nov 10, 2011

Veda's Blog: Look Out! They Have A Mouse!

Technology means that one social media faux-pas can upturn years of brand equity, says Vedashree Khambete in this month's blog

Veda's Blog: Look Out! They Have A Mouse!

The other day, my phone lost network. I tried all the usual things – shook it hard, swore at it, banged it on the desk a few times, threatened it with litigation. Nothing worked. So I did the next logical thing most consumers do – bitched about it on Twitter. Within 10 seconds, I got a tweet from the mobile service provider, asking for my location and assuring me that they’d look into it immediately. As opposed to, you know, keeping me on hold and transferring my call to 12 different, equally clueless customer service executives.

Which got me thinking: we’ve come a long way from apology ads.

Remember those? Sorry our cola has pesticide, sorry our TV blew up in your face, sorry but worms love our chocolate too. Here’s a cookie, now buzz off.

Of course, we didn’t SAY it like that. We used words like ‘deepest regret’ and ‘heartfelt apology’ and ‘unforgivable oversight’ and possibly even ‘world peace’ at some point. Now, now, put away your pitchforks - I’ve written one of those ads myself, so I’m not judging others who have.

My point is, back then, a mistake could be apologized for a week later with a full page press ad. People read it, maybe credited you with a little more integrity than they did before and moved on with their lives. If a brand or a product pissed a consumer off, they talked to some ten people around them to vent their angst. In a day or two, they’d all forget about it. In the same way, if people thought an ad was crap, it would be expressed in a 2-minute water-cooler conversation.

Now, with a single tweet, Facebook update or blog post, one consumer’s rant about a brand can be viewed by millions of potential consumers, thousands of whom will then get pissed off at the brand without having been directly affected by it. Today, with every third person flaunting a smart-phone, people can take a picture of an ad they don’t like and post it online with their very own snarky one-line critique. Available for viewing, to people who had till then, formed no opinion about the ad themselves.

And that’s why brands are falling all over themselves to play nice with those they irk.

All in all, the ‘Share’ button has changed the game for all of us. In scary, scary ways. Cases to the point? Kenneth Cole and Nestlé.

Around the time of the Egypt protests, Kenneth Cole put up a tweet that would’ve ordinarily been seen either as a lame joke or a lame promotion attempt. Instead, with the might of the social media against it, it became a controversy and a PR nightmare. (Whether it sold the spring collection in question, I don’t really know.)


But like they say, hindsight is 20-20. We can’t always predict the intensity of people’s response to brand messages (or blog posts, for that matter), more so on the internet. But damage control – oh boy, do we need to learn that fast. Kenneth Cole did it admirably – by quickly tweeting an apology and then hoping like hell that it would work.

Now Nestlé, on the other hand…

Apparently the company was sourcing palm oil from Indonesia, which was destroying the natural habitat of orangutans. In protest, Greenpeace put up a video on YouTube likening eating a Kit-Kat to eating an orangutan. Till this point, some 100 people must’ve seen that video. But then, Nestlé goes and asks YouTube to take that video down, turning it into a freedom of expression issue, which drew anger from ordinary people who didn’t give a damn till then. Greenpeace protestors took the anger across YouTube to Nestlé’s Facebook page, the issue became a trending topic on Twitter, and the video in question has so far been viewed over a hundred thousand times.

The entire process generated eight weeks of bad PR for the brand. EIGHT WEEKS. The only way they could possibly have messed it up more was if they actually killed an orangutan on primetime television.

And therein lies the lesson for the rest of us. If your brand, your ad, your message inadvertently (it’s always inadvertently with us, isn’t it?) steps on a few toes and gets lambasted over social media, then choose the path of least resistance. You can’t outshout the millions of faceless voices on the internet – the delicious anonymity of a username means they can let unleash their venom with as much intensity, frequency and volume as they like.

What you CAN do, is wait for those voices to die down, on their own. Given the amount of distractions (read porn) available online, that’s going to happen pretty quickly anyway.

Vedashree Khambete is an ACD with Mudra, a writer at heart and a coffee-addict by vocation.

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