The foundations of a capitalistic economic system lie in reputation build-up and nurturing the same, thus spake Allan Greenspan. It takes immense planning, and application of insights, to condition people to pay obeisance to your brand – besides it being a creative endeavor, it is also hugely capital sucking. And imagine if some forces work to bring your brand to disrepute, poisoning the consumers’ minds and hearts. It is like sinister hackers infesting your systematized software with malicious virus and Trojan worms. Scary? Let’s scan the background.
Brand Hacktivism and the Media Landscape
There was a time in the 1980s when Doordarshan was the only channel to advertise your brand messages. The lone channel was the only medium for advertisers and brand managers to reach out to their consumers. Then came cable television in the 90s and made spectacular inroads into the Indian living room. The consumers were passive receivers of the brand messages and allowed brands to enter their lives without much thought. The resistive barriers were feeble. The advent of the 21st century saw the growth of Internet and social media and gave consumers the opportunity to interact actively with brands.
Since then, India’s digital landscape is evolving fast – by July 2014 one in five consumers was using the internet (though this is a lower penetration than in many advanced countries). The internet growth figures indicate that 30 million new users have been added since January 2014 alone, amounting to a 14% increase. Social media use is also growing, with Facebook alone adding one new user every second since January 2014. (This adds up to a mind boggling 16 million new users).
70 per cent of internet page views in India are on mobile devices, while 9 in 10 Facebook users access the pages through mobile devices. 4.5 billion ‘Likes’ are generated daily and 802 million people log onto Facebook daily. Crucially, it’s this mobile connectivity that’s driving India’s digital growth.
Twitter is the second most important social networking channel and brands are using twitter to increase their reach and enhance their brand communication. Trending on twitter is what brands aim for.
Due to the increasing use and popularity of social media, brand messages/ feedbacks (both positive and negative) tend to go viral at an unmatched scorching pace. Never have the brands been as naked as they are now, millions of messages are created every day and brand messages are critically evaluated in great detail by the socially empowered consumers.
Socially empowered users or Hacktivists?
However, social media has empowered consumers with a new weapon – and most brands are strategically unprepared to cope with this new generation of “hacktivists”. Social media has empowered consumers to have a dialogue with the brands, and a single tweet or Facebook post could be as serious a threat as an organized attack by a special-interest group. You never know to what mass or momentum it could balloon.
Hacktivism is increasingly being used as a weapon by individuals to promote their attitude towards a brand by engaging it in sporadic unpredictable guerilla warfare. Their aim is to disrupt and distort brand communications using social media platforms. Some of the most common forms of hacktivism include: social media protests and hijacks, parody brand messages, spoof content and memes, crowd sourcing contents and more serious forms of electronic terrorism.
Your consumers will expect transparency and dialogue and not a monologue. The hactivist’s action can damage a brand’s reputation in the market because what goes online stays online – it has infinite memory though Google is allowing some purging of late). Your response has to be immediate and appropriate – neither too defensive, not too disarming.
Social media can be a two-edged sword
Few years back, Vodafone was the most admired telecom brand in the country. Recently, Vodafone is faced with a potentially huge social media backlash on social networking platform Facebook. It all started when Vodafone issued a legal notice to one of its customers for his alleged false and defamatory statements against it on social networks and then later on had to retract it in light of the social media backlash. That's what social media can do by customer hacktivism.
Similarly, Ford Motor Company was forced to apologize for an ad posted online promoting its Indian hatchback with a cartoon showing three bound and gagged women in the rear of a vehicle driven by Silvio Berlusconi, the former Italian prime minister. Immediately the ad went viral on social media, joking about the brand communication blunder. Heads rolled in the advertising agency and Ford brand took a beating. One just can’t be politically incorrect in these tumultuous identity awakening times.
The powers of hacktivism haven’t spared even Congress Vice-President Rahul Gandhi, who became a butt of jokes on Twitter after being snapped napping in Parliament. Most of the Twitter trolls stated that Rahul Gandhi must have been awake all night watching FIFA semi final between Brazil and Germany, a perfectly allowed lifestyle activity, but which went deemed inappropriate.
In most cases, hacktivism is a result of negative experiences with your brand. These can come from: Inconsistency across channels and touchpoints, Inconsistent brand communication, a brand promise – customer expectation gap, a negative interaction with people who represent the company (Sales, Customer service etc.) or could be a competitor’s strategic guerilla marketing tactics against your brand.
In the past the Wikileaks hacktivists have targeted and threatened global brands like Mastercard, Visa, Paypal, Amazon, Twitter and Shell. There is no single strategy for responding to hacktivism, as each situation is unique. However, the one universal un-countered truth is that hacktivism is a weapon of brand destruction. With more and more consumers engaging brands on social media, brands have struggled to integrate social media into their marketing strategy. Brands are consistently trying to gauge customer brand sentiment and are developing new metrics to measure brand success on social media. They are dependent on “listening platforms” that monitor online conversations and measure the sentiment expressed through online social media.
Brands need to recognize the power of brand hacktivism and develop integrated social media strategies to diffuse brand’s negative sentiments on social media, or pay for the consequences. This is not to alarm – it is to exhort pragmatism.
The author is a brand communication professional, consultant & educator with a 2-decade practice of creating strong brands.