Danone Fights Damaging Viral Slurs in Argentina

In Response, Actimel Yogurt Creates Its Own Rumor Machine to Spread Playful Lies

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BUENOS AIRES (AdAge.com) -- Danone countered a vicious viral attack on its Actimel yogurt brand in Argentina by fighting rumors with -- other rumors. As marketers struggle to find new ways to protect their brands from social media onslaughts, Danone is re-writing the playbook with its Creator of Rumors (Creador de Rumores) digital effort.

But it didn't start out that way. A few months ago a viral e-mail circulated in Argentina, directing people to a web page that described supposed facts about Actimel, such as that the probiotic yogurt brand was addictive, destroyed the stomach's natural flora and could harm childrens' health. Other blogs quickly picked up the story, and the damaging stories were soon the top ones returned in online searches for Actimel.

Initially Danone used traditional means to fight back.

"The first step was to react, responding to all bloggers and websites who posted news about Actimel with the wrong message," said Andrea Fogarolli, brand manager in Argentina for Actimel, an international brand known as DanActive in the U.S. "[We] also answered questions that came to our consumer information website. As a second step, we aired a commercial where we spoke specifically about the malicious e-mail."

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In the TV spot, Daniel Mainatti, a popular young investigative journalist, walks through a park surrounded by families playing with their children, and talks about the yogurt brand: "You can trust Actimel. Anyone can have it. It's always good to have an Actimel."

By February, the company was ready to try something new. Enter local digital agency Sinus, with a campaign encouraging people to go to a new rumor-creation website called creadorderumores.com. At the site, visitors can generate rumors, and a list of friends to send the link containing the rumor and a photograph of the sender. The site includes a sample rumor -- Argentine woman wins a free 10-day shopping spree at the world's best malls -- followed by the takeaway message: "Don't believe everything you see on the internet. I'll show you how easy it is to spread a rumor about you."

"What we are trying to do is show people how easy it is to lie and deceive on the web, and how careful we as consumers must be to get truths about brands," said Sebastian Garcia Padin, owner of Sinus. "What the Creador de Rumores is doing is telling people 'Be careful'."

Users can't go too wild with the rumors, which can only be about themselves and must be selected from a limited number of pre-written choices, and accompanied by a headshot. You can tell the world you've won the lottery or a trip to the World Cup in South Africa, are romancing a supermodel, or embarking on a rock-star tour with a British band. This reporter chose the first option and generated the rumor "Patricio won the lottery," formatted as the front page of a newspaper.

"Results were excellent," Ms. Fogarolli said. In the first month of the campaign, more than 40,000 people visited the site, and more than 100,000 individual false rumors were created and sent.

"When we started, we had too little [digital] experience," she said. "Now we see the web environment makes it necessary to be always present. We're just realizing that, and this action shows that if we do something fun, a lot of people get hooked and viralize it."

Danone said the initial viral slurs about Actimel being harmful didn't hurt the brand's sales, but declined to disclose any figures. Industry experts estimate Actimel has about a 5% share of Argentina's yogurt market -- but close to 80% of the priobiotic segment -- and sales of about $2 million a year.

"This was Actimel's first digital shot, but it should have been its tenth," Mr. Padin said. "Brands must not leave gaps wide open."

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