NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- On Twitter's @Hyundai page, there is a collection of 140-character blasts in English and Korean about oysters, cellphones and the Yankees. Clicking on a profile photo reveals a collage of scantily clad ladies bearing cleavage and more, and a caption saying, "Have a Lustful Day."
Hyundai is far from the only marketer that's been beat to the tweet. A quick survey of Twitter accounts for the top 100 national advertisers, as ranked by Advertising Age's DataCenter, shows that surprisingly few have ownership of the Twitter handles that correspond to the names of their companies or their brands.
Among the multinational corporations whose Twitter accounts are being squatted upon: General Motors, General Electric, Diageo, Coty, Comcast, Eli Lilly, Kellogg Co., MasterCard, Nestle and Walt Disney (see chart above).
While Twitter has awarded celebrities like Ashton Kutcher and Oprah a special "verified account" status, marketers have yet to be granted such badges, posing a huge problem for those who have failed to register their brands early enough. It's also bad for Twitter, which until now has been a free service but is trying to find ways to turn a profit with businesses. Twitter has hinted heavily that a "Twitter Pro" service is coming, figuring this issue for marketers and trademarked brands will be an increasing headache.
Twitter's head of commercial products, Anamitra Banerji, said, "We understand brands' frustration when it comes to account verification. We are working on ways to make the process easier and faster .... Given the volume of requests we receive, sometimes it might take a little while to close requests but we are trying to improve that too." The social-media service, he said, is "[working] with business owners extensively to ensure that they own their trademarks/brand names on Twitter as our terms of service doesn't allow name-squatting or impersonation."
Surprisingly, even Walmart, a company that's been hailed lately for its social media savvy, is grappling with the issue. The accounts for both @Walmart and @Walmartstores are in someone else's hands. Asked whether it was trying to obtain those accounts, Walmart declined to respond, saying instead that it's focused on the "authentic accounts for Walmart," which are updated by associates who've been designated to tweet. "We have an interest in Twitter and using it as a significant part of our social-media campaign as we move into 2010," said Brian Chee, manager of digital marketing for Volkswagen of America, but right now the automaker is tweeting under the account @vwcares, because the handles @vw and @volkswagen are both taken.
There are a few major marketers that have had some luck winning back their rightful Twitter handles. In March 2008, Home Depot made the decision it wanted a presence on the site, but when the company went to register its name, it found someone else had already snapped up @HomeDepot.
"There it was, big and empty, and I said 'Uh-oh, what if we want to use this channel someday?'" recalled Sarah Molinari, corporate communications manager.
The company signed up for @TheHomeDepot instead, but in the meantime alerted Twitter it wanted the handle, which wasn't being used. "They worked with us to give us control of Twitter.com/HomeDepot," said Ms. Molinari, but it took a full year.
While being on Twitter isn't a required part of any company's communications strategy, at a time when most marketers budgets are squeezed, it's hard to imagine passing up on a chance to engage consumers -- according to ComScore data, there are 20 million people on Twitter in a given month -- using a free medium.
At the same time, it becomes more important to ensure that nobody outside the company wields the power to send out communications on the company's behalf.
Not all marketers are ruffled, though. Pfizer doesn't own the handle @Pfizer, and a mystery tweeter is regularity tweeting updates about the company. Ray Kerins, VP-worldwide communications at Pfizer, told Ad Age that the company isn't planning to take any action. "We are obviously watching any site that discusses our company or our products," Mr. Kerins said. "We're going to continue to watch. These social communities are actually very self-policing."
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Contributing: Abbey Klaassen