From a chair in the marketing department, it’s too easy to look only at the world that, well, you can actually see.  The problem is that – while your optics on other parts of the company may be zero – those other zones may be your greatest weakness.  And they’re operating in the webosphere 24/7.

You know, for example, that your company has plants in the Far East or does business with farms, but – unless you’re on this or that executive committee – your true knowledge of the goings on out in the field is extremely low.

Low, that is, until a video hits YouTube and becomes a sensation. That great campaign your team has been lovingly preparing for six months? Forget about it. No one would believe it, and everyone’s in crisis mode, anyway.

Not having a broad handle on your organization’s practices in the farthest reaches of the value chain might have been acceptable 10 years ago, but –  in the age of social media – companies have to be more aware of their soft spots: the activities that are vulnerable to miscommunication, misinterpretation or true mishandling.

How your company handles farmed salmon or trucker hours or car seat testing isn’t in the CMO’s purview, but you better believe that it sits on every marketer’s desk, every day, like a ticking time bomb.

Tick, tick, tick.

There are also plenty of examples where marketers have voluntarily entered the social media jungle, unprepared for the attacks that even a child could have told them might come.

It is smart marketing  – not “negativity” – to have an unblinkingly honest view of your brand and to protect its vulnerabilities. Every brand in the world has ’em. McDonald’s in the US and Waitrose in the UK (hashtags #McDStories and #waitrosereasons, respectively) are both recent examples of powerful brands putting a toddler in front of a Twitter truck and expecting her not to get run over. Maybe she won’t, but do you really want to find out?

Of course, most of the challenges that brands face in social media aren’t new. People have always groused about poor service or “hated” this brand or another. The difference is that now every consumer is one tweet away from telling the universe about it.

Take the case of Progressive Insurance. When New Yorker Matt Fisher’s sister died in a car crash, Fisher wrote a scathing blog post. In one week, Marketwatch claims the company lost 1,000 customers, with another 1,600 saying that they would never do business with the insurer. Plus the news coverage was unbelievable.

Now, was Progressive wrong in this case? I have no idea. Do any of my friends have any personal knowledge of this particular situation? Nope.  But that didn’t stop them from tweeting and retweeting while the story was hot.

NBC News said it best: “the “lessons from [the] Progressive screw up” are that “when it’s Twitter vs. lawyers, take Twitter.”

The insurer settled the Fisher family’s lawsuit within three or four days.

In essence, social media simply amplifies your strengths and weaknesses. It creates a level of transparency that forces advertisers to live by what they say.  Or else.

And by the way, could a consumer just be “out to get” your company and stage some awful stunt that gets picked up worldwide? Yes, and that’s happened. In the meantime, you endure a week of hell, claiming your legitimate innocence, while the brand gets shredded.

So – what to do? Brands need to prepare for and anticipate the downside. A food company may want to think about how its ingredients are selected. A QSR might want to do the same. A shoe or computer company will want to think about its manufacturing policies and whether there are any parties that would relish revealing a damaging factoid.

This is not paranoia and, as I said, it’s not negativism. In my opinion, it’s actually the greatest thing you can do to protect what you care about. Everything’s easy when everything’s good. If the organic material hits the fan, how will you protect your assets and the consumers who believe in you and who need to understand what happened? What message do you want to communicate, and how, when and who will do it?

Don’t wait to figure this out. Sit down in private with your agencies and your leadership and create a plan for what you’ll do when a true or not-true-but-fast-moving event occurs. Know what you’ll do in the short term, and determine whether there would be any possible adjustments to the marketing message or the business overall in the long term.

The truth is that most brands aren’t doing heinous things, but there is a wide gulf between that truth and what actually might happen to you on the Web. Every week, I see a brand looking like a deer in headlights after some goof-up on a social network. When will we get it?

Prepare for what you should assume will be the inevitable. It doesn’t mean it’ll happen, but – if it does and you’re ready – the payoff is the preservation of brand value, your company’s reputation, your employees’ commitment and much more.

The bottom line is that living in a castle and thinking your brand is just fabulous is a mistake. Everyone’s got vulnerabilities. That’s business.

A version of this post was first published HERE by M&M Global.

Don’t Let Social Make You Stupid

September 30th, 2012

I’ve written a lot of posts on social media (like HERE and HERE and HERE). Piles of marketers, consultants and others opine on a daily basis about the thrilling, exciting, shiny new world of social media.

But here’s the thing: social doesn’t change any of the fundamental principles of communications and consumer engagement.

If you wouldn’t telemarket or mail an offer that doesn’t seem particularly relevant for the recipient, why put common sense in reverse, for example, when it comes to mobile?

There’s no switch in the consumer brain that makes an offer attractive, relevant and helpful simply because it’s delivered on a new device, or in some other sparkly new way.  There IS one big difference in social: now consumers can instantly tell millions of others how bad your marketing is – how “clueless” you seem to be.  And that should make us more (not less) careful about inaccurate targeting or just out-and-out NO targeting.

I chose the title of this post because of a Ron White quote I borrowed for my Ten Tips for Marketers: How to Avoid (or Deflect) a Social Blunder write-up back in February, and that’s this: “you can’t fix stupid.”

Don’t let social cloud your (or your agency’s) judgment, wise friends.  I say this because I care: social doesn’t fix stupid.

P.S.  Readers know that I’m partial to a couple cartoonists and like to share their work now and then.  On my second blog,  it’s David Jones‘ Adland.  Here, it’s Tom Fishburne’s Brand Camp. Enjoy.

Readers know that I’m partial to a couple cartoonists and like to share their work now and then.  On my second blog,  it’s David Jones‘ Adland.  Here, it’s Tom Fishburne’s Brand Camp.

This entry pays homage to Fishburne’s hero, Maurice Sendak, who passed away in early May 2012.


How is it that company after company trips itself up in the social media space?  GoDaddyAflacChryslerNestleKenneth ColeQantas.

On and on, over and over. And it’s not just about how to avoid a problem in the first place, but also how to handle an issue once it arises (which in and of itself can generate scorn or admiration from consumers).

There’s lots of advice on the Web for marketers hoping to protect their brands from a social media bruising, and I’ll offer my two cents here with 10 tips for avoiding social media’s banana peel.


1. Be honest about your brand’s vulnerabilities when deciding to use social media and its tools.  It is smart marketing – not “negativity” – to have an unblinkingly honest view of your brand and to protect its soft spots.  Paging McDonald’s, come in McDonald’s…

2. Have a contingency plan ready.  It’s not a question of how brilliant you are.  Things just… happen. Especially in social media.  You simply cannot anticipate every person’s reaction and what s/he might do or say.  See:  Chapstick. Or Gap.

3. Marketers strive to make their messaging relevant and timely.  I have often thought about how I might make a brand’s message relevant at holiday time (interesting Christmas themed surveys, etc.).  Some topics, however, are too serious to be co-opted by a marketer.  Natural disasters?  No thank you. Deaths?  ‘Don’t think so.  I don’t care what the rationale is. This. Is. A. Bad. Idea.  Poster child: Kenneth Cole.

4. Please be sure your left hand knows what your right hand is doing. Social media is not an activity unrelated to the rest of the company and its activities or circumstances.  My fave example: Qantas [A great tweet from @kiwi_kali:  “Somewhere at Qantas HQ a middle-aged manager is yelling at a Gen Y social media ‘expert’ to make it stop.”].


5. Respond quickly.  You are “right” and others are in the wrong?  No one cares. Your brand is now being used and abused on the Web?  Don’t insult your customers in response.  End a social media crash-and-burn fast with an apology, if that’s appropriate, or some other move that will disarm the bomb.  See: Nestle v. American Red Cross by @hanelly.

6. Once the immediate crisis has passed, circle back with critics that really matter to you and your business – preferable offline. Take the conversation out of public channels to keep from fanning the flames and to give the critic the attention that s/he deserves.

7. Protect your brand assets.  I harken back to what I learned long ago at Citi Credit Cards – the name and the physical product are precious.  One never bends, breaks or otherwise violates the actual plastic in ads or anywhere else.  Just because the Web isn’t as tactile, per se, doesn’t mean the rules of brand stewardship do not apply.  The Netflix fumble over “Qwikster” was inexcusable, in my opinion.  The company threw away years of brand equity, picked a name, in particular, that didn’t have a fabulous past, AND failed to register the @Qwikster Twitter handle.  That was already registered to a dude whose avatar was Elmo the Muppet smoking pot. Can you say “fireable offense?” Totally rad, dude.

8. If one staff member or representative goes off a cliff, don’t beat yourself up too badly – it doesn’t mean that social is “bad.”  Tell your CEO that (to borrow a famous line from comedian Ron White) social media doesn’t fix stupid.  See:  Best Buy and Chrysler.

9. Do whatever you need to do to ensure that history does not repeat itself. One social media screw-up is plenty.

10.  If it’s humanly possible, make lemonade from lemons.  Domino’s (see #8 above) did a phenomenal job of transforming a stupid human trick into a positive corporate opportunity.  This isn’t always possible, but a little humanity and sincerity can go a long way. In Domino’s case, living through this episode was most certainly a mile marker on their road to using social to fundamentally change the company.

This is by no means an all-inclusive list, but it’s a start.  Now get out there and don’t let your CEO kill any animals on video!


A version of this post was originally published by the Marketing Executives Networking Group (MENG).