14 April 2017 11:35:36 IST

Is your brand being hijacked in social media?

New customers, who may not even use a brand, are making life quite difficult for brands

I am a social media buff, if such a term exists. I gloat at the folly of politicians and gleefully share their antics online. When a brand mistreats me or any of my Facebook friends, I go to town, castigating it. I happily share bad news about customer service and ask my followers to be aware of the brand, never mind that I haven’t used the product or service.

Yes, I am the new, deteriorated customer who is making life quite difficult for brands and their owners. Sadly, as much as they detest or fear me, I cannot be wished away.

Fodder for online rants

And I have been having a field day over the last couple of weeks! The first piece of entertainment was provided by the boorish Shiv Sena MP Ravindra Gaikwad, who had the gall to proudly claim that he hit the Air India staffer no less than 25 times.

For once, I was in support of the airlines I have been critical of. When the videos of the Vietnamese passenger being bodily dragged hit my mobile screen a few days later, I hoped that the brazen MP would be overbooked on United Airlines.

Hardly had I recovered from these incidents that Kendall Jenner’s new ad for Pepsi was pulled off with an apology, as it was seen as a crass attempt to ride on a popular wave. The brand was slaughtered on social media, and United Airlines wasn’t spared either, with everyone and their brother- in-law giving their own version of what had actually transpired. This leads me to a few important observations.

Crises are here to stay

Unlike a Tylenol, which was a landmark crisis some of us still remember, today’s controversies seem to happen with a lot more frequency. Remember Maggi, Cadbury, Pepsi and Volkswagen?

The biggest reason for this is social media. This medium has the capability of turning millions of us citizens into journalists with our own following. Look at the number of videos on the internet of the passenger being dragged off by United Airlines personnel, to speak nothing of the spoofs and the jokes that it has spawned.

I may have never travelled by United Airlines — and most certainly won’t, in the near future — but I do have a point of view that I am airing, whether people want to listen to not.

Multiple perspectives

Everyone has their own perspective to the story. Today, the world is getting polarised, with many starting to believe that their view is the only one that matters. Contrary views are studiously shut out, even views people identify with are promoted and shared, truth be damned.

But that is the new reality, and brands better be aware of this. A typical example is how the United Airlines’ issue was turned into once of race. The passenger was identified as Chinese, and it spawned off a discussion on how Asians are being targeted and discriminated against.

Time is of the essence

It has been well documented that crisis need a speedy response from the custodians of the brand. One of the reasons Air India came out smelling roses in the Gaikwad episode was the firm manner in which the airline’s CMD, Ashwani Lohani stood up for his brand and employee.

Juxtapose this with the Maggi incident, that almost went out of business in India due to the tardiness of its response to the crisis, and you will understand that time is of the essence.

They may have been guilty of underestimating the seriousness of the threat and ended up with a horrible financial year.

Is your brand being hijacked?

All students of marketing are familiar with the launch and failure of the ‘new Coke’. “Why would anyone want to improve the real thing?” seething customers asked. Angry phone calls, letters and protests followed, forcing the brand to pull back the new product. The company then learnt a valuable lesson — that the brand actually belonged to customers, not to the giant headquartered in Atlanta.

Today, there is a twist to the tale as social media buffs, trolls and underemployed people, who may never be consumers of the brand, get into the act and harass brand owners. They can’t be wished away and yet can cause some serious damage to the brand.

Mind you, I have no sympathy for brands that treat consumers poorly. But as a customer, am I giving myself a lot more importance than is due? Probably, but I am here to stay and the earlier the brand managers realise my criticality, the better. Yes, it is no fun being a brand manager in today’s connected world.

So what’s trending today? Hope it’s not your brand for the wrong reasons!