Gaurav Sood, author of Troll Proof Branding in the Age of Doppelgänger, describes the harm that the social media attacks by dissatisfied customers can cause to brands, suggests strategies to rebound
Photo Credit : Dr. Gaurav Sood
In the age of social media, consumers are no more passive recipients of products and services; they actively spread word about quality, durability, and health, social and environment impact. In this milieu, brands need to be on their guard and intervene in the nick of time to avert harm. Gaurav Sood, professor of marketing at Amity Business School, Amity University, Noida, has done an exhaustive study of history of brand-building, attacks on brands, and modern forms of culture-jamming, in his new book, rich with examples. He uses the German term Doppelgänger — alter ego — to show how these attacks create the opposite effect of the image a brand wants for itself. In an interview with Businessworld, he delves into the issue at length. Excerpts:
Doppelgänger imagery in the 21st Century, with the vast reach of social media, has the potential to ruin a company’s reputation instantaneously, as highlighted through several examples in your book. What approach would you suggest to companies in terms of dealing with the harm arising out of this imagery?
Well, the web is a dangerous place with people trying to sabotage the brand equity through culture jamming, trolling, fake news, digital activism, and opposing the brand’s emotional branding stories, creating a brand doppelganger, a family of critical and uncomplimentary stories circulated in the popular culture by anti-brand activist, social media users, and opinion leaders. These disparaging images if ignored can lead to the creation of brand doppelganger and can damage the brand’s reputation. From memes to parodies, Adbusters and subvertising, a brand doppelganger can originate from anywhere and in any form. It can be created by consumers, anti-brand activists, competitors, opinion leaders, media, and the public at large who help in amplifying the brand doppelganger image by circulating it through their social media platforms.
Marketers need to develop a strategy to combat the brand doppelganger imagery and they have to research the following:
What form the brand doppelganger has adopted to destroy the brand’s reputation? Is the brand culture jammed through memes, anti-brand websites, blogs, satire, parody, fake news, trolls, digital hacking, etc.?
Is the brand doppelganger positive and favours your brand as in the case of the Indian Premier League (IPL) or is it damaging or is it accidentally created by company’s mistake or market socio, political, economic, or cultural environmental changes?
How will the brand doppelganger damage the brand? Will it result in reputation loss, financial loss, brand avoidance, etc.?
What are the options available to combat the monstrous imagery?
Each brand has its unique challenges when it comes to managing its doppelganger. There are many strategies mentioned by me in the book. These have to be different for different brands depending on who and how this imagery is created and what is the magnitude of damage.
Do you see a need for new expertise area, and dedicated human resources to protect brand image, considering that conversations on social media and public feedback regarding products and services are here to stay ?
Most big companies are already aligning their human resources with the help of technology to address the challenge of brand doppelganger. Those who still are ignoring it will be at loss. Brand communication is a two way communication where the stakeholders hold more power to challenge the authenticity of the brand communication. It is no more B2C or B2B but C2C which holds the key. Well does this means a dedicated human resource to manage the brand doppelganger? I disagree. Managing brand doppelganger in an organisation is to create a customer responsive culture and each and every employee belonging to various functional roles like marketing, sales, customer service, HR, finance, operations or even the leadership team needs to be trained to develop a response mechanism to handle the brand doppelganger. So, the brand should be concerned as to what part or aspect of its branding story is under attack for example is its customer service, product features, benefits, price, distribution channel, etc. and assign responsibility to the concerned function to come forward and contribute in countering the monstrous imagery.
While in your book you recommend deploying scientific methods and tools like sentiment analysis and brand concept mapping to bring out consumers’ deeper feelings, to what extent can these strategies be in averting negative publicity crises?
See, a brand is a network of associations in the mind of the consumer and they comprise positive as well as negative brand associations. The paramount objective of the brand is to create and reinforce positive brand associations through brand elements (logo, symbol, jingle, color, etc.), packaging, marketing mix (product, price, distribution channel, and promotion). A brand doppelganger image can put a spanner in the smooth rolling of the brand communication and can challenge the brand authenticity. For example, Coca-Cola brand has faced consumer backlash through fake news like ‘Coca Cola as a toilet cleaner’ or trolled for ‘peddling sugar’, damaging the brand’s reputation and value. So can brands like Coca-Cola ignore the creation of their doppelganger imagery or identify and measure its impact to develop a sound brand strategy.
Even strong brands need to be careful in managing the performance of their brand by continuously reviewing the performance of the brand, the marketing managers cannot accept even a slight slide in the brand value or overlook a single negative review about the brand. A brand’s performance needs to be measured through monitoring certain key performance metrics to gain timely, accurate, and actionable insights into brand health so that tactical and strategic decisions can be taken in the short and long term.
You have discussed at length anti-brand activists creating a “monstrous image of the brand”. However, many of the concerns that they raise are genuine. These could be environmental, health issues, disregard for labour laws or loss of local livelihoods. Unless the core issue is resolved by actually taking action, how can trust be restored?
So resolve it! That’s what I am trying to communicate through my book. Why should a company give room to or indulge in actions that could create this brand doppelganger through an angry customer or a anti-brand activist. So if we see certain examples like “Nike Sweat-Shops”, “IPL-Match Fixing”, “United Airline Customer Service failure” and many more such cases obviously need to address their failures and take corrective measures to resolve the core brand issues. Brands have been doing this in the past and I am sure will continue to do it in the future. For example Coca-Cola is working towards sustainably sourcing all key ingredients by 2020 and reducing its carbon footprint by 25 per cent by 2025.
Disney, at all of its parks, uses zero net direct greenhouse gas emissions and has a zero-waste policy so that nothing ends up in landfills.
Switching to energy-efficient appliances at its restaurants, McDonald’s cut energy waste by 25 per cent; it also plans to source all of its packaging from recycled materials by 2025.
Facing the “Sweat-Shop” controversy, Nike raised the minimum age of workers, significantly increased monitoring; and adapted U.S. OSHA clean air standards in all factories.
You have cited examples of CEOs scoring self-goal by posting politically incorrect tweets, employees of a restaurant contaminating the food and posting a video, and brand ambassadors causing harm through their actions. Do these instances create a ground for stringent policies regarding social media posts by employees?
Oh sure, every company should have guidelines for their employees (most of them do) to manage customer queries, social media post, employee behaviour etc. Now this is the combined role of leadership, HR and corporate communication as to how to train their employees and monitor their activities from time to time in managing their roles, responsibilities and behaviour when they interact with the stakeholders and public at large on social media platforms etc. Still some incidents may come up, so face it and resolve it in the best interest of the stakeholders both internal and external.
For example, Adidas group social media guidelines states, “At the Adidas Group we believe in open communication and you are encouraged to tell the world about your work and share your passion. Whether you do so by participating in a blog, wiki, online social network or any other form of online publishing or discussion is completely up to you.”
Further it also mentions that the employee has to identify himself in each such social media post and is personally responsible for the content they published. Also some don’ts by Adidas guidelines state that the employees should not comment on work related to legal matters and confidential agreement. The policy also includes respecting copyright and referencing content.
Much of what is circulated on social media is also vitriol, and celebrities are often target of that. How can celebrities shut out the noise while retaining the fan base?
Every celebrity has different strategies to manage the trolls. Recently, a netizen commented on Amitabh Bachchan’s post, calling him ‘buddhey’ (Old man). Giving a befitting reply, Big B wrote, “I pray to god that nobody insults you when you grow old.” So some celebrity use humour, some ignore, some confront, some preach and some sympathise.
Alia Bhatt, who has won so many awards for her acting skills became the butt of joke after her rapid fire round of ‘Koffee with Karan’ on her ignorance about the President’s name. Alia took this on her stride and said, “I look at it in two ways — I’m either relevant or irrelevant. If you’re making a joke about me, I’m relevant. So why should I be upset?”. The actress bounced back with ‘Genius of the year’ video on social media channels. The video garnered 1.6 million views in a day and the whole film fraternity and even her critics appreciated her sense of humour and the ability to laugh at herself.
Which is that one company/ product/ personality that has reinvented itself after bad publicity, and come out much stronger?
Though there are many brands who have bounced back, but there are two which I can mentioned here:
In 2019, Nike failed to keep its brand promise of enhancing performance of the athlete in the case of Zion Williamson, an American professional basketball player for the New Orleans Pelicans of the National Basketball Association (NBA). What happened during a highly anticipated matchup between Duke and North Carolina was unbelievable as the Nike shoe he was wearing split in half while making a cut and made him sit on the bench with a knee injury. People took to social media and blamed Nike for this debacle and culture jammed Nike core positioning of ‘Just do it’. Not only people but even competition joined the party and used this opportunity to malign Nike image and project their shoe as a better option. The consumer backlash was so powerful that the Nike shares plunged down by 1.8 per cent.
It was a huge embarrassment for Nike and could have been a big product liability case if Zion would have been seriously injured. Nike crises management team soon came to action and assured that they are working on to identify the issue and take corrective measures. After a month Zion was back playing and wore a Nike custom-made shoes and stated that they were incredible shoes.
Similarly, a study conducted by the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) found rampant adulteration in honey sold by major Indian brands, with 77 per cent of samples failing purity tests for sugar syrup adulteration. Dabur was one of them. Following the controversy, Dabur India partnered with Amazon India and launched its organic honey. Dabur Organic Honey claims to come with the ‘promise of being completely unprocessed and unpasteurised.’ Also Dabur launched three minute video showing honey collectors on a honey trail in the Sunderban; it highlights the ‘beehive to breakfast table’ journey of honey.
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