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Saturday, 14 January 2012

How Wegmans and Lowe's were bullied by social media


Wegmans_Baldwin.JPGAlec Baldwin and his mother, Carol M. Baldwin, starred in a Wegmans commercial last year filmed at the Camillus store where she shops.


The one fundamental rule of product advertising is to avoid controversy at all costs. No company can sell beer or cars if the content around the ads is raising the customers’ blood pressure. That’s why a sponsored documentary about abortion on commercial television is about as likely as one advocating an end to capitalism.
Forget it.
Now that social media have made it possible for consumers to organize through Twitter and Facebook, they can wage war directly against companies whose behavior offends them. This suggests a new marketing rule: “Thou Shalt Not Risk Offending the Twitterati (Unless You Are Prepared for the Consequences).”
Wegmans and Lowe’s, two smart retailers who should know better, have learned this rule the hard way. Their recent experiences suggest that Advertising 101 courses will have to be updated considerably to reflect the power of social media.
First the Wegmans case.
Why did the premier supermarket chain think it was necessary to advertise its stores using Alec Baldwin and his mother as celebrity endorsers? Wegmans’ best advertisements have long been their own stores, which market themselves with flair. Why stir the Baldwins into the mix?
Once the ad aired, a few dozen complainants bullied the company into pulling the campaign. They didn’t approve of Alec Baldwin’s behavior on an American Airlines flight.
So what? How much opposition in the age of social media should push Wegmans, or any company, to capitulate? When is a Twitter attack a pandemic, and when is it a mosquito bite? Wegmans seems to have mistaken the latter for the former.
At least Wegmans had the good sense to restore the ad campaign once the Twitterati who liked the Baldwins responded in much larger numbers. That, too, Wegmans should have anticipated.
Once the dust settled, it was clear this was an entirely self-inflicted, unnecessary embarrassment. It could have been avoided entirely if the company had never made the ad in the first place; if it demonstrated the courage to stand behind its decision in the face of comparatively feeble opposition; and if it anticipated there would be opinions on both sides (as there always will be in Twitterland).
The Lowe’s case is even stranger.
First the company broke the “no controversy” rule by sponsoring a reality television series titled “All-American Muslim” that aired on the TLC cable channel. The show followed the lives of five Muslim American families in Dearborn, Michigan, offering the message that most Muslims are simply normal Americans.
Lowes_Ad_Flap.JPGA customer walks out in front of a Lowe's store.
Did the company not anticipate that a portrayal of “normal” Muslim American families would enflame the same people whose hair was on fire over a proposed Muslim cultural center in the vicinity of Ground Zero (one of the great non-events of 2010)? Is there a more controversial issue in American public life since 9-11 than the supposed loyalty of Muslim Americans?
Let’s assume Lowe’s recognized the potential for controversy and backed the show because it was the right thing to do for the country, and because Muslim Americans have aggregate disposal income of more than $100 billion a year. Are 13,000 signatures on an online petition organized by the marginal Florida Family Association urging a boycott of Lowe’s enough to turn the tide?
Apparently so. Lowe’s quickly caved in and ceased advertising on the show, thereby unleashing a much larger Twitter and Facebook attack on the company. This, too, was predictable.
As in the Wegmans case, all this damage was self-inflicted. Avoid controversy. They broke that rule. Anticipate pushback from the Twitterati and prepare for it. Rule broken. Don’t cave in under minimal pressure. Rule broken. Don’t let the Twitterati use your own Facebook page to inflame the controversy. Rule broken. (Adweek wrote that Lowe’s was in “Facebook Hell” as bigots used the company’s own page to attack Muslim Americans.)
As younger advertising and corporate executives move into management ranks, these rules will be refined and updated. Now, most companies are in the Dark Ages coping with newly-empowered consumers, and that includes my own “business” of American higher education.
Why, I wonder, aren’t college students, who are so adept with Twitter and Facebook, using social media to demand changes to the product being offered them by the administrations of their colleges? Why aren’t students inundating college presidents with messages and flash mobs to demand tuition freezes, more sections of required courses, lower administrative salaries, more financial aid, the removal of ineffective professors from the classroom, and a lot more?
This is coming. And when it does, the response of the average college president will make the folks at Lowe’s and Wegmans look like public relations geniuses.
David M. Rubin, former dean of the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University, is an occasional columnist with The Post-Standard. Email him at dmrubin@syr.edu.


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