Every brand should be very afraid.
Power to the people, as the saying goes. Thanks to the internet consumers have a say in everything a brand does, good and bad. Today, we are seeing more and more people crowding together as a force to be reckoned with – a force that can turn into a destructive attack and can cause a brand serious damage. These attackers, or dare I say terrorists, can be competitors, disgruntled employees, unhappy customers, extortionists, activists or others more sinister who want to cause a brand harm or even ultimate assassination.
Richard Torrenzano, co-author of the book Digital Assassination, says “Crime and ideology have integrated. Diehard activists and unscrupulous business rivals are engaging in digital combat marketing.”
Last October on CBS 60 Minutes FBI director James Cormey was recorded saying “there are two kinds of big companies in the United States … those who’ve been hacked by the Chinese and those who don’t know they’ve been hacked by the Chinese.” Then there are those who have been hacked by North Korea. Hacking big brands are a big problem. Robert Herjavec, founder of global IT security firm The Herjavec Group and star on the TV show Shark Tank says “The higher profile your brand, the more value it carries and the bigger a target it is.” No surprise major American brands have been significantly effective.
A very memorable attack was just prior to Christmas in 2013 with over 70 million credit card customers’ files hacked at Target. The Wall Street Journal estimates the Target hack cost over $350 million including replacement cards and IT expenses. But the fall-out went beyond direct costs to the departure of the company’s Chief Information Officer and the Chief Executive Officer. The actual cost of customer’s losing confidence in Target was never part of the equation.
In a study done by RedSeal, a cybersecurity company in USA, found that almost 80% of 350 C-level executives admit that a cyberattack can inflict “serious impacts to business profitability and growth,” and bring about “serious brand damage.” If you asked Sony Pictures senior executives they would whole-heartily agree. This last Christmas season Sony Pictures experienced one of the biggest online data heists to date. Earlier in 2015 Sony Pictures downplayed the massive hack as only a 15 million dollar inconvenience. Their revenues were down by 11.7% for that quarter partly due to not fully releasing their controversial movie The Interview, thanks to the threats from Kim Jong-un.
How about the hacking group Rex Mundi who demanded over $40,000 from the fast-food chain, Domino’s Pizza for ransom of 600,000 Belgian and French customers’ personal data records including their favourite pizza toppings. As the story goes, Domino’s refused to comply and the hackers never released the information. Maybe they paid them off with free pizzas for a year.
Herjavec believes that hacking has entered a more sinister stage where it is less about money and more about a brand assassination. “We’re no longer dealing with individuals who want to steal your money. We’re dealing with foreign national governments that want to hurt America.”
False Claims, Reviews and Rants
The popular review site Yelp.com contains over 70 million reviews of restaurants, barbers, mechanics, and other services. Roughly 16% of reviews are removed by Yelp because they are deemed fake both positive and negative. Vince Sollitto, VP of Global Corporate Communications at Yelp says their “job is to find and filter out fake reviews. At the same time we let our audience know that this system isn’t perfect. Some legitimate content might get filtered and some illegitimate content might sneak through.” Over two years, Yelp caught 400 companies trying to game the system – sounds like they weren’t very good gamers.
The New York Times reported on a case of a business hiring workers on Mechanical Turk (an Amazon-owned crowdsourcing marketplace) to post fake 5-star Yelp reviews on their behalf for as little as 25 cents per review. I’m sure 1-star reviews are even cheaper, which would be a deal to take down an adversary.
Bing Liu, a researcher at the University of Illinois at Chicago, has estimated that about 30% of the reviews online are false. He also says that a substantial percentage of those false reviews are negative. Can one review kill a brand? Chris Anderson, co-founder of Cyber Investigation Services says “a single Ripoff report that ranks high under a brand search can drop a business’ revenue by as much as 75%.”
The scary part is there are so many places you can post malicious, false rants or claims beyond the traditional review sites that are monitored. There are a number of gripe sites people can share their hateful brand story. If you have a gripe, there is a website.
According to research by Ponemon Institute, 43% of companies reported security breaches in 2014 which is up from 33% in 2013. So what can you do? Mailguard experts in online security says you need a “Brand Guardian” to oversee monitoring and reporting system to scan and monitor your website for hacked pages, potential malware and security risks such as phishing links.
Research firm Gartner warn that one in seven posted reviews are likely false. How do you respond to these reviews? First you have to keep your cool. Fighting fire with fire doesn’t work here. Check out the website policies and contact the website support team with your concerns. If they can’t help, then respond directly to the review in a professional and civil manner and if possible offer a solution.
Negative Brand Placements
To further heighten the brand negativity, the assailants, armed with creativity and talent, will associate the attacked brand with something or someone consumers would consider offensive (examples below). The sad thing is these images don’t have an expiry date and will pop-up whenever and forever on the internet.
During a recent highly publicized gruesome murder case, the killer Luka Magnotta was found on the Montreal Gazette’s website holding a bottle of Labatt Blue beer. Labatt Breweries of Canada threaten to take legal action against the paper if they didn’t remove the photo. This ignited Twitter and Facebook followers to engage in the conversation creating more negative media for Labatt. They used the hashtag #newlabattcampaign to post fake negative advertising for the beer. Not a successful outcome for Labatt.
From all corners of the internet, conversations about brands are taking place both positive and negative, whether the brand participates or not. The real trick is understanding when the brand should and shouldn’t engage in the conversation. But, what’s really important is that your brand be visible online when people want to hear your side of the story.
Shaming – the Digital Lynch Mob
On Mike Ewing’s blog, he quotes a study that says 90% of people believe brand recommendations from friends. That is a strong endorsement for word-of-mouth.
Social media has become the future version of public flocking, stoning, lynching and the people’s court – all in one. But, it is also the best word-of-mouth when people are raving about their brand experiences. It’s a two edge sword.
People can lose their jobs in minutes or find themselves on the nightly news after being captured on video doing something regrettable that can never be erased. Most brands are represented by people – fallible people; therefore, brands quickly get implicated when an employee is captured at work or off work doing something unsightly for some. There is no longer a line between church and state. The righteous understand that they have more power pressuring the employer to get the appropriate action they are looking for. The scope, reach and speed which harmful content can move around the internet is truly alarming. Six years ago, Domino’s Pizza saw this first hand as two employees posted a prank video of unsanitary and disgusting food preparation practices in one of their stores. I am sure you saw it on Facebook. Within a few days (today it would be hours) there was over a million views on YouTube. Here is a news report of the event.
Domino’s President, Patrick Doyle, responded with his own YouTube video to apologize and reassure customers’. He said there was nothing more important and sacred to Domino’s than its customer’s trust. That being said, the damage was done. A study done by HCD Research found that 65% of respondents who would previously visit or order Domino’s Pizza were less likely to do so after viewing the offensive video.
NGO’s also understand the power of social media to not only get their message out, but to activate people and supporters. They have two objectives: to raise money and to stop brands from doing something they deem bad through the power of amplification (i.e. using concerned citizens who are trying to do right). In some cases, they will take a fact about your brand grossly out of context or exaggerate it, making an ordinary shortcoming seem horrifying. In most cases it’s about terrifying the public to take action. Mark Twain said “Never let the truth stand in the way of a good story”.
Greenpeace has been very successful in launching social media attacks on brands. Here are three examples:
The first is an attack on the Nestlé’s Kit Kat brand to stop them from using palm oil from Indonesia where many animals were threatened by unsustainable forest clearing for palm oil. Nestlé now has a goal of using only palm oil certified as sustainable.
The next attack was on Shell Oil and the toymaker, Lego. Since the 1960’s, Shell promoted a Shell-branded Lego sets at gas stations. Greenpeace protested Shell’s plans for Arctic oil exploration via the Lego’s partnership. The campaign was successfully in ending the partnership between Lego and Shell. I believe Shell is still perusing its plans in the Arctic but are more dependent on oil prices at this point.
And finally, the attack on British Petroleum after their major oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Greenpeace launched a “Rebrand the BP Logo” contest. They asked supporters to “…create a logo for BP which shows that the company is…up to their necks in tar sands and deepwater drilling.” Here was the winning design by Laurent Hunziker.
There is a good chance that strong leading brands who have beloved followers also have the detractors – activist who hate everything the brand stands for. These brands become the focal point of what’s wrong with the world. The terrorist’s goal is to damage the brand’s image which ultimately will affect its market share and profits. Ironically, they treat large brands as though they are the terrorists and in true stately fashion, they’re not into negotiating. In 2004, mi2g estimated there were over 10,500 hate sites against major global brands on the internet. My guess is that number has more than doubled since then with the help of social media. Here are some examples:
Umit Kucuk, an authority on anti-brand sites says “The majority of companies might be choosing to ignore these sites while others are spending money developing websites or filing lawsuits to combat them. Companies need to realise that these sites can direct extreme criticism to companies and bias-driven broadcasting to markets and consumers.” He says it’s important to investigate ways to shift this hate towards “a more productive and positive form of communication that helps to maximise both company and consumer benefit in markets.”
Protect – Monitor – Defend
- Have an action plan ready for scenarios like the ones described in this article. If anything you do or offer has the potential to be used against you, be prepared to address it.
- Have experts available at a given moment to provide support and advice.
- Have a digital and social presence with consistent messages that can be easily found.
- Continue to build brand trust online like you do in real-life.
- Start listening today on what is being said about your brand on blogs and social media
- Understand who is saying what and who are the influencers.
- Setup Google Alerts to notify when you brand is mentioned somewhere on the internet.
- Google your brand name once a week or more.
- Understand your environments (industry, political, geography) to catch trends that put you at risk (i.e. consumer opinion, fads and referendums).
- If you find your brand under attack, take appropriate action. I say ‘appropriate’ because sometimes no action is the right action.
- Activate your plan quickly.
- Be honest and sincere, even when the attack isn’t.
- Remember you are protecting your relationship with your customers – respond to them and not the attacker.
- Seek expert help when necessary.
“Don’t think that if you are not participating in the social media conversation that your reputation can’t be ruined online by a digital attack,” said Richard Torrenzano. “Others will create false information or blogs about you or your brand that can cause significant damage with a keystroke. And you have to know how to thwart or respond to those attacks.”
Be Afraid and Be Ready
With the help of social media and a couple of million friends, consumers and attackers have a lot of power, more than any brand will have, because people will believe people first. According to Nielsen, 92% of consumers believe recommendations from friends and family over all forms of advertising.
Generally, most consumers can distinguish between facts, hate and fiction. The problem today is more and more hate and fiction is being packaged into well-crafted emotional stories that become viral sensations before any truth hits the web, which is too late. The collective world has made their verdict and has moved on to the next terrorist attack, while the brand tries to regain trust and fix the damage. For small businesses and individuals, the damage may not be repairable.
A few brutal reviews on Yelp may destroy a small business, but may not have the same effect on a BP or Monsanto (two of the most hated brands based on market research firm Harris Poll). Both companies have received their fair-share of NGO’s attacks, Facebook boycotts and bans, Twitter hashtags like #monsantoevil and #boycottBP, YouTube videos, protests and marchers, and Halloween costumes. But, they are both still in business and doing well. As a matter of fact, Monsanto’s 2014 sales were up 7% over 2013 for a total of $15 billion, while BP Group’s 2014 sales dropped 11% compared to 2014 for a total of just $214 billion.
Consumers have a short memory and if you respond quickly and fix the problem (if one exists), they will forgive you and come back. More importantly, if you brand is strong, your loyal customers will come to your rescue and defend you. I can’t emphasize the importance of being prepared for all possible situations. If you don’t have all the right answers now, at least make sure you have a clear crisis escalation organization chart of who needs to be involved when the attack occurs. Time is the biggest challenge when the verdict is immediate.
Be alert and ready for any possible brand terrorist attack.