In the movie Ground Hog Day, Bill Murray's misanthropic character, Phil Connors, responds to a colleague's comment that people like celebrating Ground Hog Day with a point that some marketers might appreciate: "People like blood sausage, too." Today's organizational brand teams confront a growing blood-sausage problem: Customers are exerting increasing influence over brand-management activities.
How much influence do you want to yield to customers who have enough time on their hands to email, tweet, and blog about why your company should change its logo, product design, or business practices? This may be a cynical question, but it begs asking at time when consumers can effectively recall new logos that don't jibe with their own brand perceptions, as Gap and Tropicana discovered in the past two years when customer backlash caused them to scrap new a logo and packaging, respectively, and return to former ones.
Here's a better question: How much should customers influence brands? The answer has less to do with social media and more to do with risk management. And those unfamiliar with risk management must keep in mind that risk refers to the possible occurrence of both threats and opportunities.
"The train has left the station as far as customer [brand] influence goes. Whether the influence is invited or uninvited, it's going to happen," says Jonathan Copulsky, a Deloitte principal and author of Brand Resilience: Managing Risk and Recovery in a High Speed World. "This is all about risk. When it comes to their brands, companies need to be risk-intelligent organizations. That means figuring out in advance what brand risks are acceptable and what risks are unacceptable, and then being prepared to take action."
For example, shortly after Frito-Lay introduced biodegradable bags for its SunChips brand, a Facebook group called "Sorry, but I can't hear you over this SunChips bag" attracted more than 40,000 followers who agreed that the new packaging created too much noise when handled. Frito-Lay's initial response, posted on its SunChips.com site and on in-store shelf signage, was prompt and good-humored: "Yes the bag is loud. That's what change sounds like." But the bag-lash continued, and Frito-Lay soon pulled most of its compostable packaging. "Within a week," Copulsky reports, "there was a new set of Facebook groups, grousing about the demise of the bags."
The SunChips brand team continued to assess the threats and opportunities related to its environmentally friendly packaging, ultimately treating the customer feedback (both pro and con) as an impetus to embark on "a journey to developing a better bag." The new biodegradable, yet quieter bag information is now available via a "compostable packaging" link on Sunchips.com home page. The link explains how the bag was tested, why Frito-Lay developed the bag, and how people can compost. This information clearly demonstrates A) the company's rationale behind the brand decision; and B) even more important, how the company listened to, considered, and incorporated customer input into the process.
According to Erin Raese, COO of Loyalty 360, customers rarely understand all the considerations and decisions that occur behind a brand, which is why she advises marketing executives to think twice before changing logos or key marketing message in response to customer feedback. Instead, marketing executives should ensure that they are listening to customer feedback and incorporating that feedback, in a transparent manner, into their existing brand decision-making processes. "The customer isn't living and breathing the promotions as the marketers are," Raese says. "It takes a customer a while to understand the promotion, get comfortable with it, and then use it."
Deloitte's Copulsky agrees, suggesting that brand and marketing teams consider adhering to the following sequence of activities whenever an outcry over a marketing program, logo change, or other "brand shock" materializes:
1) Log the incident
2) Describe what happened
3) Assign an investigative team
4) Focus on cause and prevention rather than assigning blame
5) Formulate the recommendation(s)
6) Assign implementation responsibility
7) Track the implementation progress
8) Review your incident log regularly
If this process sounds overly systematic, it should. Copulsky asserts that brand resiliency in the era of social media requires the same process discipline that fuels effective organizational risk management programs.
"When incorporating consumer opinions and influence, one of the biggest risks a brand can take is not rallying internally and staffing correctly," adds BazaarVoice Chief Marketing Officer Erin Nelson. "When no one owns the data, important insights go unnoticed, information is routed to the wrong people within the organization, no action is taken, or is reactive at best."
And unless that reactive cycle is broken, it is doomed to repeat itself—just ask Phil Connors.