Brand and Anti-Brand Management

Although brand management can be considered to be “nothing but the art of creating and sustaining the brand,” Jones and Huang note that, “unlike traditional consumer-created brand communities where the brands appear to occupy minimal presence, online brand communities are increasingly hosted by the brands.”

Building upon Schau et al.’s research into collective value creation within brand communities, Jones and Huang found that “Social media as an interactive technology both enables and becomes a site of value creation for the individual consumers, the brand community and the brand itself.”

Unlike user-generated brand communities, where brands are often unwelcomed, these online brand communities “revealed that brand content contributions on their brand offerings and interactions with consumers’ content contributions were appreciated by the community." “These consumer-brand interactions, functional and otherwise, fostered emotional bonding between the members and brands—because the brand has become individual and approachable, and the boundaries between consumer and brand interactions have somewhat blurred,” Jones and Huang conclude.

Jones and Huang list six different types of avenues that can be exploited by brands, including178:

  1. Branded social networks: These are customized platforms for interacting with consumers. They often include a fusion of applications, such as discussion forums or wikis.
  2. External social networks: While some brands choose to create their own community websites, others just have a presence on an external social networking site, thereby taking advantage of the network’s built-in platform and audience.
  3. Innovation hubs: These are unique platforms provided by the brands for users to post their ideas to the company.
  4. Content aggregation sites: These are websites where users share media content with other users. They are Websites such as BookCrossing, Flickr, YouTube, and Slideshare and they often include brand-sponsored “channels” through which the brand distributes media content and allows users to engage with and comment upon the content.
  5. Blogs: A normal type of blog, but filled with corporate information.
  6. Micro-blogging: Brand-owned micro-blogging websites are normally used for data collection (i.e., a Twitter account that is used to track Tweets and mentions).

Brand is one thing and anti-brand is another; when it comes to anti-brand management, businesses should be well aware of the threat this unique problem entails. In his article Negative Double Jeopardy: The Role of Anti-brand Sites On the Internet[v], S. Umit Kucuk claims that anti-brand websites are today‘s “form of boycott and protest, developed through consumer activism as a result of increasing consumer power.” According to Kucuk and Krishnamurthy because of the advent of the Internet, “Consumers are able to clearly broadcast their messages and organize with other like-minded consumers,” which allows them to use “anti-brand websites as weapons of empowerment to battle the corporate world and its brand power on a day-to-day basis.”180

It doesn’t take much to set up a website these days and as Kucuk explains, “the corporation has a website and so does the consumer.”180 Anti-brand sites are “attacking targeted brands and corporations by using their most powerful online branding tool against them: ‘domain names’. Many such anti-brand domain names are easy to remember and catchy in nature (such as Northwest Airlines’ Northworstair.org, Safeway’s Shameway.com, Starbucks’ Starbucked.com, Coca-Cola’s Killercoke.org, etc.).”180 Kucuk notes that, “Anti-brand sites purposefully use the targeted corporation’s brand name in their domain name to insult the corporation’s brand identity and to express their anger and frustration while entertaining and educating consumers and audiences” alike.180

As the attack on Las Vegas Sands proved, there are bad actors out there and a corporate owner can just as easily be targeted for his political views as anything to do with his company.

Although their names can be quite humorous, these websites are no laughing matter and they must be taken very seriously and the courts in the United States have been of little help; many have found in favor of these anti-brand sites, stating that, “usage of a targeted brand’s name in a domain name is not trademark infringement, but is protected under the First Amendment—as long as the site owner does not use the anti-brand site to make a profit.”180

Like a virus living off its host, these anti-brand sites “benefit by sharing the link popularity, brand awareness and web traffic of the targeted brands’ site in many search engine results and in consumer surfing decisions on the Internet.”180 Troublingly, anti-brand sites “often show up in the top ten search results when a corporate brand is researched on major search engines,” Kucuk adds.180 Other sites are also taking “advantage of mistyping (called typosquatting) to steal traffic directed to the targeted brands as in the case of Untied.com, a hate site targeting United Airlines (United.com).”180

“For these oppositional consumer groups, anti-brand sites have turned out to be major message dissemination venues and a powerful communication tool. Today, hate sites exchange information, organize boycotts and coordinate lawsuits, thus revolutionizing consumer movements,” Kucuk adds.180

The Internet’s tagline could almost be “Seek and you shall find” and, in the case of disgruntled airline passengers or slighted employees, these sites are easy to discover and even easier to add complaints to, so companies should be wary of engagement on them. Another thing to keep in mind is that if one of these anti-brand websites discusses company policy and invites other employees to comment, it “can be considered ‘concerted activity’ and is protected by the National Labor Relations Act—NLRA.”180

Kucuk breaks down anti-brand sites into four different categories—Experts, Symbolic Haters, Complainers, and Opportunists.180 The developers of an “Experts” site usually have detailed knowledge about a company’s markets and their alternatives as well as expertise about business practices, products and technologies.180 “Because of their advanced level of expertise, they are capable of sensing and following market changes in real time,” Kucuk notes.180 These Websites are often sophisticated and some “apply strong expressiveness and communication strategies with unforgettably powerful images to maximize their impact on visitors to the site,”180 with the ultimate purpose of hurting brand identity.180 “This, in effect, creates some level of economic pressure by stimulating anti-consumption against the targeted brands,” concludes Kucuk.180

The brands targeted by “Symbolic Haters” have high brand awareness, but they are not as valuable as those targeted by the experts.180 This group of anti-brand protesters is predominantly sustained by rumors, supposition and negative word-of-mouth and they focus more on the myths behind the brand’s success.180

In order to create opposition to a targeted brand, “Complainers” reflect their anger by bringing negative attention to a company with service failure scandals.180 “Complainers” are “more interested in operational and product-related problems than business philosophy or system order,” notes Kucuk.180 Acting like rejected lovers, these complainers “might have initially tried to build communication with the company regarding their concerns, but their insight was not appreciated by the company, and they chose to protest them on hate sites using ‘wake-up call’-type attention grabbers to get their point across.”180

These types of sites are not as advanced as either experts or symbolic haters sites180, and “their expressiveness is limited to depictions of actual service failures (pictures of smashed packages, etc.) or scanned and posted documents about the unresolved communications with the targeted company rather than advanced interactive website designs.”180 The message, however, is clear and often the examples given involve personal experiences that the Website’s readers can empathize with, and thus the reader may develop a negative opinion of the targeted company based on another person’s experience.

“Opportunists” could be considered the scavengers or hyenas of the anti-brand website world as they “rely on a company’s service failures reflected in the media news as their main source of information.”180 Kucuk argues that “opportunists are fed by media, not personal expertise nor experience, but they are trying to use flashy news stories to influence potential consumers into viewing their own website in order to increase site traffic.”180 “Opportunists” are driven not by personal experience, but rather by a desire to trumpet scandalous news so that their websites gain more traction and attention.180

Although anti-brand sites are usually created to attempt to hurt brands, smart companies can—in a Vito Corleone “Keep your friends close but your enemies closer” kind of way—use these websites to their advantage. Kucuk offers four basic strategies for companies to counter these anti-brand Websites; work with experts; monitor symbolic haters; talk to complainers; and combat opportunists.180

The anti-brand “Experts” websites might actually be helpful because they can alert a company to problems they might not have known existed, and the expertise shared on the sites can be used in a company’s market value creation process going forward.180 Unlike customer-satisfaction surveys or pricey consultants, feedback gained from such sites is free to the company.180 Some very useful information can be gleaned from an ex-employee’s tell-all Website, as former employees often have extensive knowledge of the inner workings of a company180, and this is knowledge that is oftentimes overlooked by higher-level company executives.

Of course, before engaging with these experts, a company should first analyze and determine the “hostility level” and “expertise level” of such sites.180 If the hostility level is extremely high and the expertise level low, the site should be monitored but not necessarily engaged with, until, that is, the hate generated has reached such a harmful level that it needs to be addressed.180 “If a company reaches a somewhat manageable level of hostility along with a good level of consumer expertise through these sites, it should, however, encourage consumer involvement in the market co-value-creation process,” advises Kucuk.180

Because symbolic haters might be under the influence of negative word-of-mouth stories, the challenge with these sites is to counter these negative stories with timely positive and credible ones.180 The insight symbolic haters provide on their sites isn’t usually as useful or informative as that provided by experts, however.180 Kucuk advises that, “Companies should closely monitor what these sites are talking about and be open to any communication form directed to consumers in order to control this symbolic (or sometimes even disingenuous) hate targeted towards their brands.”180 “In other words, a company cannot defend its perspectives without knowing the truth behind the news broadcasted by such sites:” 180 once again, keeping one’s enemy close.

“Complainers” are the consumers who “might have been satisfied with a company’s products and services for a while, but have grown dissatisfied.”180 They might still be “looking for the spark or enjoyment they once felt when they met with that brand,”180 but they have currently fallen out of love with it. Since these sites are trying to garner attention by focusing on major service failure scandals, Kucuk recommends that companies “contact site owners to solve such consumer dissatisfaction problems before the aggression begins to impact the company’s brand identity on the Internet.”180

Because negative word-of-mouth can go viral in seconds and live on social media sites almost indefinitely, it is imperative for companies to challenge negative word-of-mouth stories and transform them into positive word-of-mouth ones as quickly as possible.180 Companies should keep an eye on e-complaint sites, as well as consumer blogs to monitor the type and duration of problems that can flare up.180 When appropriate, companies should email upset customers, perhaps attaching discount coupons or gift cards to show its remorse for poor service and/or bad quality,y as well as its sincerity towards improving customer service.180

As their name implies, “opportunists” are mostly looking to exploit an opportunity to be recognized so that they can reach a level of awareness that will gain them public notoriety.180“Opportunists” “can be very harmful once they find scandalous events regarding a targeted brand, which brings the site higher visibility and traffic,” warns Kucuk.180 “Opportunists” are trying to steal web traffic from the targeted company, and will search the news media for anything they can use to gain attention by attacking brands.

“In a pre-emptive attempt to prevent the creation of such anti-brand sites, corporations can buy potential negative domain names that can be targeted on the Internet,” advises Kucuk.180 For every Facebook.com there is probably going to be a Facebooksucks.com so companies should be aware of the existence of these opportunists as well as be ready to combat them to stop any potential brand erosion.180 The “.sucks” web address is also available so any disgruntled customer could purchase that and quickly become a headache for any casino company by writing about their negative experiences. Snapping up possible anti-brand sites when creating regular brand sites can help avert many potentially embarrassing anti-brand headaches in the future.

Casino companies are ripe for anti-brand messaging as the 2014 cyber attack on Las Vegas Sands showed. According to US intelligence, this attack was orchestrated by the Iranian government[vi] and it was a complete disaster for Las Vegas Sands, who saw its employees’ personal information release to the world.

Culling through sites like Twitter, Facebook, Weibo, etc., etc., for customer complaints should be a daily, if not hourly practice. Alerts can be set up to peg comments by known patrons, with an appropriate email response automatically prepared. Approval from a host, manager, or executive would only take moments and responses could, literally, be in the hands of patrons moments after they made their critical tweet, Facebook post and/or Weibo comment.

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