Mob culture and new media

Written by Lakshmipathy Bhat | Updated: Mar 16 2010, 06:12am hrs
It all started with an innocuous meeting for coffee. And ended up being an exercise in online brand reputation management. I am referring to the situation faced by Cafe Coffee Day recently on Twitter. A bunch of bloggers had a Tweetup (love the way new words get added to our dictionary: podcast, for example - but that's another story) at a Cafe Coffee Day outlet in Chennai. In spite of running up a bill of Rs1000-plus, they were asked to pay a cover charge by the manager of the outlet. They gave vent to their feelings on Twitter creating the now infamous #ccdsucks hashtag. One of those present also ranted about the experience in a blog post. To Cafe Coffee Day's credit, they responded fairly quickly, apologized for the incident and moved on. But given the nature of the micro-blogging platform, it was one brand against a virtual mob. The effect of that one evening's tweets lasted for days. This episode did not seriously dent Cafe Coffee Day's reputation but brought to light the new realities of marketing online, where consumers have the power to impact a brands reputation, comment on a brands activities or brand experience openly. Aircels Save the Tiger campaign for example has its share of critics in the online world. What are the issues involved How will they affect brands that have a significant base of consumers online

It's free for all, virtually

The funny thing about micro-blogging services like Twitter is that it makes life easy for mob culture to take over. Notice the frequent use of hashtags like #fail for almost every service oriented businessbe it airlines, hotels, courier services. It makes it easy for an individual to spew venom on any topic - an actors non-existent acting skills, a movie, a brand...anything. And unlike a blog post, which can be tracked easily and has a sense of permanency to it, a tweet can get lost in a sea of anonymity. Curse your bank about its service, curse about flight delays, curse about your computer, a cold dosa, a political party...whatever. Be read by a few thousands of people and move on. The consumer can suddenly play god. Or at least he thinks he can, in his own small way.

Brands in high involvement categoriesfinancial services, tech, travelare most affected. Sure, the impact is limited (because of the relatively small numbers involved) compared to negative stories in mass media but it can be safely said that the conversation is among the influencers in the online world.

What can companies do

Don't ignore it: With the right effort, it is possible to track negative conversations about your brand on the net. The last thing a brand can do in today's open world is to let consumers hijack a brand's reputation. Set up a process, identify individuals and empower them: When I have written about brands online, it is always a pleasant surprise to hear from the brand concerned. It sends a message that they care. With our online effort for Tata Indigo's Manza, we had identified individuals who will respond to the pre-launch online campaign. In most cases though, the response comes in only for a positive mention (thanks for posting about us, much appreciated, etc,.). The negative ones are not usually followed up consistently. I wrote about the poor service of a private sector telecom brand on its broadband service, but nothing happened after the initial we will look into it response.

Respond quickly, assertively if need be: In the Cafe Coffee Day case, it would perhaps have been better for the brand if they published their side of the story, stating the facts. Maybe they could have interviewed the manager and published a blog post. Better still, respond to the barrage of #ccdsucks tweets with their own #ccdcares or #ccdresponds hashtags.

Present an honest face of the brand: Recently, Dominos Pizza in the US went for a makeover with a bold strategy: they called it the Pizza Turnaround. They admitted that their product was not good enough (as revealed in a consumer research) and even published responses like tastes like cardboard and its the worst excuse for pizza Ive ever had. Even after the campaign to introduce the new-improved pizza, they continued to post all the tweets (including the negative ones) about the new product.

What can agencies do

I have a sneaking feeling that among some agency folks it is common to look down upon digital trends. The lifestyle of a youngster who discovers lost sheep on Facebook or tweets about mundane things in life is seen as an inferior kindin comparison to our youth. I think we need to accept that consumption of media today is different from the previous generation and it will be different tomorrow. My 4-year old daughter will soon be an iPhone pro. Apps for kids apps are so rich and their interactive nature will become part of how she consumes media later. I remember an article in defence of the iPad where the author talked about the possibility of it being ubiquitous as the preferred mode of reading online magazines, dailies and books five years from now. So the media landscape could be very different from what it is today.

Agencies must develop a passion for new media and experience it first hand. I read recently that Nokia India appoints mentors to seniors. The mentors are in the 25-30 age group and their job is to coach the seniors on a one-on-one basis, taking him through the latest trends in the various aspects of the digital world. Maybe something like that could be experimented with in agencies. To understand new media's impact on brands what better way than to embrace it wholeheartedly

The author is vice-president, DraftFCB+Ulka.