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Mean Brands

14th October 12

Posted by timnolan

Posted in Brands, social media

Additional credits: Angela Sun, James Francis, Mark Aronson and Julian Cole

When people talk about brands being more human online, it somehow always concludes with something along the lines of “be honest, be transparent, be good, be nice”. While all these traits are great, we are overlooking one pretty huge issue: humans are not nice online.

First, there’s trolling. In academic terms, Lee Sproull (PhD Professor Emerita at NYU’s Stern School of Business) said it best. He coined the term “flame wars” to describe how we act online: there is “an escalation of critical comments, and an increase in the frequency with which people would respond with short negative comments.” There’s no denying that people are mean online. Look at our own industry blogs like Agency Spy; we all know the comments there are just plain mean.

Sure, trolling is usually done in anonymity, but people are still mean when their identities are revealed. According to a recent article from the WSJ, “most of us present an enhanced image of ourselves on Facebook. This positive image – and the encouragement we get in the form of “likes” – boosts our self-esteem. And when we have an inflated sense of self, we tend to exhibit poor self-control.” Is Facebook is turning us into The Plastics from Mean Girls?

Some of us don’t partake in the mean behavior, but we are all entertained by it. A few of the biggest blogs rose to fame thanks to their snarky commentary. Think Perez Hilton, Suri’s Burn Book and People of Walmart. The internet is vast enough to show the full range of the human experience — including all the gritty, unsavory bits. The internet has also helped normalize these gritty, unsavory bits. We can now air out our guilty pleasures in plain daylight.

So are brands really being more human online by employing CRM Twitter strategies (think Best Buy Twelpforce) and CSR Social Media Campaigns (think Pepsi Refresh)?

While we’re not suggesting that brands should act as online bullies and ditch the nice work they do online, we do think there is space for brands to be more “human” online — brands should not homogenize online. We kicked around a few ideas on how to be mean online, and here are our thoughts. The list isn’t exhaustive by any means, but it should get your creative juices flowing.

1. Brand v. Consumer
People are mean to brands. Why can’t brands be mean to people?
There are some people who will never be your customer (i.e. health nut probably will never eat at Jack in the Box). So when one of these people says something mean about your brand, give them a taste of their own medicine. For example, Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, a small chain of movie theaters that has a strict policy against people who talk and text during a movie, posted a voicemail from a disgruntled customer who was kicked out of a theater on YouTube. As a result, they received almost 3 million views and a bunch of love and support.

This is a pretty polarizing tactic. But for certain brands, the people who love your brand will love your brand even more when your brand doesn’t back down. The tension between the fans and foes can also strengthen brand love and increase brand advocacy.

2. Brand v. Brand
Frenemies exist. Should brands instigate cross-category rivalries in social media?
A social media conversation between two obvious brands would be a bit predictable (see the Twitter exchange between Coke and Pepsi here). The intuitive rivalry for Old Spice would be one with Axe or even Dove for Men. However, Old Spice keeps us on our feet by creating dialogue with Taco Bell.

This is incredibly smart because the Taco Bell demographic aligns well with the Old Spice target — dudes/ bros. Taco Bell has 265K followers on Twitter and Old Spice has 221K. Though there might be overlap in their fan/follower-base, conversation between the brands helps each gain more relevant followers (biologists call this cross-pollination). For brands with little followings, creating rivalries with highly social brands can help beef up its number of followers, fans and likes.

3. Brand v. Organizations
Haters gon’ hate. What can you do about it?
For brands with the mean gene, good organizations might tattletell. Gossip Girl’s OMFG print ads offended parents everywhere. So much so, the Parents Television Council took enough action to get the OMFG campaign taken down. A season after the campaign was pulled, the CW chose to use quotes from the protesters to advertise the show.

Though this was not a digital example, social media can be a great mechanism for a rapid response, content strategy. If this was online content, the CW could have quickly replaced its banners and other online assets with the revised versions fuelling the fire. The ads would have created even more noise and buzz for the show.

The basic premise behind a mean brand strategy is to lean into existing online behaviors to build brand allegiance. It takes a lot to break through in the digital space. Perhaps, the benefits of implementing a mean online strategy is worth the risks. It’s a little like life; “the only way to have everyone like you is to avoid taking a controversial stance on anything… You won’t stand out to anyone and you won’t offend anyone. In business, a dull existence means a weak brand” (source: Fast Company 2012).

One comment on “Mean Brands”

  1. [...] social world is not always kind. As this post points out while brands are trying to be human online, they forget humans are not always nice [...]

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