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Tracking down those brand smears

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Sometimes I think my personal email is like the Theater of The Absurd.

We all know someone who feels obligated to prolong the absurdity by forwarding a steady stream of emails, apparently without meaning—ridiculous pictures of cats caught in perilous positions, etc. But on occasion the emails can be malicious. I’m talking about those that erroneously lambast “evil” corporations. As a sentinel of my company’s brand, I cringe in sympathy when I see others wrongly smeared.

The classic example is the story of denizens of a third-world country who believe that Gerber Products has sent them jars of ground-up babies because of the baby photo on the jar. Or that Harley-Davidson dubbed one of its motorcycles “Fatboy” to get back at Japanese motorcycle manufacturers with an allusion to the World War II atomic bombs “Fat Man” and “Little Boy.”

My computer is a veritable toolbox of protection: I have antivirus, antispam and antiphishing. I have Truste to verify my privacy, Verisign to authenticate it, the Better Business Bureau to endorse it and Consumer Reports to recommend it. I have Snopes to sort out urban legends and FactCheck.org to track the lies the politicians tell me.

But what tells me when the smears against my favorite brands are a great big pile of fertilizer?

Take the egregious hoax that was played on McDonald’s Corp. No, correct that; “played” is too soft. In short, someone posted a fake photo of a sign purportedly placed in a McDonald’s window with the message, “As an insurance measure due in part to a recent string of robberies, African-American customers are now required to pay an additional fee of $1.50 per transaction.”

What a horrific and hurtful act. It’s mind-numbing that some people believed this hoax and circulated it around the Internet. It’s been running for about a year as far as I can tell.

It’s critical to note that the phone number posted in the photo connects to the KFC Customer Satisfaction Hotline. Going on the premise that KFC has as much brand integrity as McDonald’s, two brands have been affected by this ruse.

Dirty tricks are not limited to the b-to-c space. I’m thinking about how none other than PR company Burson-Marsteller was caught launching dirty tricks at Google on behalf of its client Facebook.

Clearly the creation of the Internet has been a terrific boon to marketers, creating a plethora of multipliers to get our messages out. This is especially true for b-to-b marketers. We can now target our messages to particular individuals in ways we couldn’t have dreamed of just 20 years ago. This is a double-edged sword, though. While we can produce discrete messages to a targeted audience, we cannot control erroneous information being spread about our brands.

What’s a marketer to do?

We must be more than good stewards of our brands; we must be stalwart defenders as well.

Of course, I’m not exactly naïve. Dirty tricks have been around since that fateful apple in the Garden of Eden. In 1184 B.C. the Greeks trialed the first free giveaway campaign with the famous Trojan Horse, and the Trojans discovered that you don’t get something for nothing.

Now more than ever, it is important to put messages out in a clear, consistent and professional manner. It must be obvious in every Tweet, blog, banner ad, calling script and direct mail to top decision-makers that your messages came from you, and that you take your business seriously.

Leave no doubt that yours is a great company. Your word is your bond.

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