The Pocket Guide to Defensive Branding

How to Protect Brand Equity and Reputation in an Increasingly Consumer-Driven Environment

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Pete Blackshaw
Pete Blackshaw
Allow me to use the next 800 words to continue my yawn-worthy "Back to Boring" diatribe with yet another urgent appeal to the less-sexy side of social media.

Today's topic: defensive branding. Please write that down. Stamp it on your forehead. Text it to yourself.

Defensive branding is protecting and defending brand equity and reputation in an increasingly consumer-driven environment. Think media planning plus actuarial viral risk management. It's first strategic, then tactical.

The logic goes something like this: Sandbag before you sell. Protect before you promote. Defend before you dance. Self-critique before you self-destruct.

Folks, we're vulnerable. Our Achilles heel just moved up to our chest. Indeed, beware exuberant social-media pontificators bearing gifts. This stuff is hard, and often it blows up in our faces. The digital landscape is littered with social-media roadkill. I've been in the brand-monitoring business since 1999, witnessing what the late Dr. Carl Sagan might have referred to as "billions and billions" of online conversations. It's not all good.

Internet as complaint desk
The era of friction-free feedback is turning Twitter into a 24/7 anywhere and anyplace complaint desk. Facebook pages for raving fans often morph into frying pans. Paid-media gains are getting erased by "spurned media" (earned media gone negative) pain.

It's not like the negativity dissipates or blow away. Wikipedia and search results never forget brand screw-ups or stumbles. Media reporters, now fortified by social-media tools themselves, regularly source scoop from a cheat sheet of tweeters, bloggers and article commentators. Often, they know things about our brands before we do.

And let's not forget the already-toxic and wickedly effective activist groups that -- now on social-media steroids -- have dramatically upped the ante for brand pain. Greenpeace has nearly half-a-million hyper-viral fans along on just one Facebook page, and their viral "network effect" touches tens of millions of consumers.

PETA's website makes the rest of us look dazed and confused when it comes to CRM, brand advocacy and influencer management. Angry moms, often aiming for the jugular, make better use of hyper-viral "sight, sound and motion" than most brand marketers.

Know they 'talk drivers'
Again, it's not that we can't win, but we might be best served by first fortifying the defense and sharpening our brand radar. Listen first, answer next, engage last. Rein it in, folks. Know your vulnerabilities and assume the worst. Think like your worst critic. Heck, put your own products and service to the "torture test" before other consumers do it for you.

Reflect hard on the "Six Drivers of Brand Credibility" -- trust, transparency, authenticity, listening, responsiveness and affirmation. Don't get high and mighty about "cause marketing" if there's a cause group that has a bone to pick with you.

To this point, smart defensive branding starts with a deep understanding of why consumers actually talk about your brand. Know thy "talk drivers" and the inherent motivations, positive or negative, behind them. Don't guess or speculate! In auto, one crazy-viral talk driver is "safety." In wireless, it's billing. In banking, it's fees and customer service. In restaurants, it's things like hygiene and clean bathrooms. For service industries, it's employees. Remember, you can't defend what you can't delineate.

Websites, if deployed correctly, can serve as brilliant defensive-branding tools. The first step to defending your brand is ensuring all the facts (the core of "social currency") get into the right hands. That means nailing site search, FAQs and the smart use of video, deployed with a shrewd sense of good timing. Buying negative keywords on search engines such as Google is another good example of defensive branding. If a consumer types your brand plus the word "complaint" or "recall" or "safety" in a search query, we know where the wind is blowing.

The same applies to consumer profiling. Keep your enemies close, and your angry customers (with megaphones) closer. Defensive branding obsesses less with demographics and more with influence. On the risk side of the equation, it helps to know the color, shape and potency of your customers' megaphone. This also matters for segmenting brand advocates who can grow and advertise on behalf of your brand or serve as a defense mechanism when the going gets tough.

Put yourself on the front lines
Smart defensive branding also means putting yourself on the front lines of your service operation. Remember, opening up the direct feedback pipe -- whether via 800 numbers, e-mail feedback, or even online chat -- can act not only as early radar, but also as a mission-critical shock absorber. Remember, a "Don't talk to me" sign can quickly prompt a video nasty-gram on YouTube, a petition drive on Facebook or a tweetstorm in your honor.

To shore up this last front, organizational and cultural dynamics must be worked. Divided we fail, de-siloed we win. I love the idea of crisis management "war rooms" because they inevitably unify diverse brand stakeholders glued to a common fuse. They also help remind the organization that we're truly in a new 24/7 age of adaptive, "sense and respond" brand management. On this point, don't shoot the messenger, but the laws of defensive branding cannibalize sleep. One blink and the game can change. This requires a new mindset, and heavy doses of flexibility and agility, a new model of resourcing, and the courage to lead against the current.

Here I recall a conversation with Erin Nelson, CMO of Dell, during the recent Ad Age panel I moderated on digital disruption. Dell, you'll recall, took a flurry of snowballing whacks as a result of single customer-service tirade by uber-blogger Jeff Jarvis -- an issue so juicy I couldn't resist using it to kick off my book, "Satisfied Customers Tell Three Friends, Angry Customers Tell 3,000."

But the brand not only learned from the experience; they leapfrogged ahead of the pack. The new world order at Dell includes online community, more-accessible customer service, ratings /reviews and a net-promoter mentality. Put another way, the crisis opened up a powerful new model. In defending the brand, Dell opened up several new offensive lines.

If you matriculate through the school of defensive branding, you'll be a better marketer. When we're paranoid, we process through many more scenarios, and more data always leads to better decisions.

Pete Blackshaw is exec VP of Nielsen Online Digital Strategic Services and author of "Satisfied Customers Tell Three Friends, Angry Customers Tell 3,000" (DoubleDay). He is also chair of the National Council of Better Business Bureaus. His biweekly column looks at the relationship between marketing and customer service in the age of consumer control.
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