My Life as H.J. Heinz: Confessions of a Real-Life Twitter Squatter

Michael Werch Discovered How a Company Would React to a Brand Hijacking

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Last fall, Advertising Age published an article about the surprising number of marketers on Twitter whose brands were being squatted on. As someone interested in how brands today are leveraging social media, reading the piece gave me the idea to do my own research. How long would it take a brand to realize it was being impersonated, and what course of action would it take? Would the brand embrace the conversation or end it?

MICHAEL WERCH: Heinz Ketchup fan and Twitter squatter.
MICHAEL WERCH: Heinz Ketchup fan and Twitter squatter.
In late November, I spent some time choosing a suitable brand on which to carry out my experiment. My qualifications were that the brand be big (global), with little social-media presence, and a brand that I'm genuinely enthusiastic about. And so, on Dec. 1, 2009, I took it upon myself to create and brand a Twitter page under the username @HJ_Heinz. I posted Heinz ketchup bottles in the profile background, a link to the company's corporate website, and a brief bio: "News, recipe ideas & fun facts for all things Heinz."

My initial tweets were simply links to recipe ideas on Heinz's site and unique facts about the company. Since I didn't have the benefit of the company's marketing team to promote links to my "Heinz" Twitter account, all growth would have to be organic and done by engaging with relevant audiences on Twitter: foodies, chefs, stay-at-home moms, food bloggers and healthy living enthusiasts.

After registering the handle under relevant keywords on a couple of Twitter directories, such as, I began searching and following users who mentioned "Heinz" in their tweets. I made an effort to follow them and retweet them if they mentioned their admiration of Heinz products.

Another significant target group I began following were residents of Pittsburgh, Pa. Heinz is a big part of the Pittsburgh community and is generally beloved by the residents. After following numerous Pittsburgh users, I saw that many of them sent tweets to their own followers announcing that HJ Heinz is now on Twitter.

For the next two weeks I continued tweeting about all things Heinz. An important part of my experiment was ensuring that all my tweets were positive in tone, as I intended to be a voice for the brand, not someone who harmed it. I shared recipes using Heinz products, tidbits about the company's history, and engaged with people mentioning the love of Heinz products.

As of Dec. 14, I had tweeted 175 times and gained 367 followers from the @HJ_Heinz feed. At 7 p.m., I logged on to discover my handle had been changed to "@NOThj_Heinz," and that the ketchup-bottle background, website link and brief bio had all been removed. There was no explanation besides an e-mail from Twitter HQ stating: "It has come to our attention that your Twitter account, @username, is in violation of the Twitter Rules, specifically the section on Trademark. ... To avoid confusion regarding brand and/or official affiliation with the business or company in question, we've made the following changes to your account ... "

Upon receiving the news, I immediately sent a few tweets explaining that I wasn't affiliated with Heinz, just a guy who loved the brand and that I would continue sharing content about the company. The interesting thing was quite a number of followers tweeted their support, saying I offered an engaging voice about Heinz and its products. They requested I keep the feed going.

After the trademark complaint, I replied to Twitter to let them know that if anyone at Heinz wished to speak with me, I'd be happy to talk to them about my experience and my intentions.

To this day, I've never heard from Twitter or Heinz. (For a response from Heinz, see below.)

The e-mail partially answered my original curiosities but led to even more. It took two weeks for the account to be changed, but when did Heinz become aware of me, and how? Does Heinz monitor the social-media landscape in which it does not yet participate? How far up the ladder did this revelation go within the company, and what kind of internal communication was exchanged to figure out if an employee was behind the account? After receiving the complaint, how long did it take Twitter to change the account?

The experiment also yielded some important findings that should be recognized by all major brands with little social-media presence. For two weeks I spoke unrestricted as the company. This in its own right is a potential PR nightmare. It should also be noted that Twitter is a low-cost marketing and communication mechanism for large brands; no more than the salary of someone currently working for them or someone they hire to tweet.

Additionally, for a global brand like this, there is significant potential and benefit to be realized through Twitter and other social-media channels. Engaging with customers and fans of your brand on Twitter might not guarantee an increase to the bottom line, but it will create top-of-mind status when that Twitter follower is walking through the grocery store.

Oh, and I've since checked the handle I was bumped off of, and it isn't in use. Meanwhile, @NOThj_Heinz has more than 650 followers and counting and is on 27 Twitter lists.

Michael Werch is an independent social-media consultant and also works with His favorite use of Heinz ketchup is with hash browns. Connect with him on Twitter @notHJ_Heinz
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