Thanks To Social Media, It's Easier Than Ever For Brands To Self Destruct

In 2005, Tom Cruise’s A-list brand suddenly went bad. While on a publicity tour for his new film, War of the Worlds, America’s biggest action hero suddenly seemed more like its number one nut. He wildly jumped on Oprah’s couch to proclaim his love for actress Katie Holmes, he got into an awkward confrontation with Today show host Matt Lauer over psychiatry and medication, which angered the film’s director, the legendary Steven Spielberg, as well as actress Brooke Shields.

The fallout was severe: The head of the Paramount Studios cut Cruise loose, calling his antics “creative suicide.” It wasn’t until the end of 2011--six years later--that Cruise found his way back to big box office success with Mission: Impossible--Ghost Protocol.

There’s no question that Cruise seemed as though he was going out of his way to demolish his brand. He flaunted bizarre behavior and beliefs on national TV and caused his own temporary downfall. But in 2013, all brands have the potential to jump on their own couches by doing no more than putting out an innocent tweet.

Item: McDonalds began soliciting stories from its Twitter fans, using the promoted trend, #McDStories. The Twitterverse was suddenly overwhelmed with users sharing incredibly negative stories of their experiences with McDonalds cuisine, and the company was forced to quickly pull the campaign, which was dubbed “McFail.”

Item: After the horrific Dark Knight Rises movie theater shooting in Aurora, Colorado, the National Rifle Association blithely tweeted, “Good morning, Shooters, happy Friday! Weekend plans?” The tweet was pre-scheduled and nobody at the association thought to pull it after the mass shooting incident.

Item: After the fast food chain Chick-fil-A was discovered to be contributing to groups that advocated anti-gay policies, the company found itself in the middle of a political firestorm. A cute teenage girl on Facebook began posting earnest defenses of the business--but it was soon determined that her picture was licensed from a stock photo company and that Chick-Fil-A had most likely set up the fake account to manufacture phony support for its positions.

The point of all this? Social media have become the ultimate “brand police," shining spotlights on whatever weaknesses a business might currently have as well as any deception it’s trying to get away with. With social media usage more widespread than ever before, and, thanks to the increasing proliferation of mobile devices, more constant than ever before, this is the year when every brand must:

Be sensitive to what’s happening now.
Should the Gap and American Apparel really be advertising a special sale for those experiencing the worst storm to hit New York City in 200 years (“Just Enter SANDYSALE at Checkout," said American Apparel’s email blast). When Hurricane Sandy hit in 2012, these two companies unfortunately saw a marketing opportunity instead of a massive human tragedy.

Don’t ask for trouble.
Yes, McDonalds is a worldwide restaurant powerhouse brand--but mostly because of its marketing and affordability rather than the deliciousness of its food or luxuriousness of its eating experience. By creating a social media campaign soliciting satisfied customer stories, they left themselves as open as a boxer with two arms tied behind his back. Be aware of your brand’s weakness, and make sure your social media strategy focuses on your strengths.

Stay away from scams.
Whenever a company tries to deliberately manipulate social media in a dishonest manner, it almost always gets outed by users dedicated to ferreting out the truth. For instance, last year in the U.K., Snickers paid several celebrities to tweet photos of themselves enjoying--what else?--a Snickers bar. But no one acknowledged they had been paid to do so, and a government investigation was soon under way.

Be authentic (to a degree).
If you Google “brand authenticity,” you’ll get over fifteen million results. Every branding expert, including me, stresses the importance of authenticity, but not every expert warns you about the level of authenticity you should display. There is no question Tom Cruise and the Chick-fil-A management sincerely hold their beliefs--but there is also no question that those beliefs have absolutely nothing to do with their “business” brands. So why insert them into the public conversation and risk alienating a substantial part of your customer base? Of course, you must be authentic about how you run your company and about the value of your products and services. But leave the rest behind the door where it belongs. Even Donald Trump, who has made a media career out of inappropriate opinions, pushed it too far in 2012.

In 2013, a brand won’t have to go couch-jumping to invite international negative attention. It will merely have to ask the wrong question or perpetrate an easily-punctured lie. Social branding has created an environment of almost limitless brand marketing opportunities--but that environment also contains a multitude of methods to self-destruct. So, this year, never assume you can put your brand on Cruise control.
[Image: Flickr user Dave Austria]

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