Blogs can make, or unmake, your brand

What do Kryptonite, Jayson Blair, and Dan Rather have in common? They all had their reputations irrevocably damaged by web logs, or blogs as they are more commonly known.
In early 2004 Kryptonite, an international bicycle lock company, had its brand and product reputation damaged by a blog claiming that their tamper-resistant locks could be easily picked by a Bic pen. The story was picked up by bloggers, and the word soon spread across the Internet. Kryptonite researched the allegation and recognised that some of the products using tubular cylinders could be opened this way. However, the online environment moves much quicker then its physical environment, so when Kryptonite announced its lock exchange programme five days later, the damage to its lock reputation was already done.

Jayson Blair joined the New York Times as an affirmative action appointee in 1999. Despite frequent criticism of his performance during his four years of working at NYT, he was appointed to the national desk where he went on to report on the war in Iraq. In 2003 it was discovered that in many of Blair's stories written on the Iraqi war, he claimed to be reporting from the hometowns of returning soldiers. However, in truth, Blair was reporting from his home in New York. The news of Blair's plagiarising and fabricating elements of his stories spread quickly over the blogosphere, causing outrage by NYT readers. Blair was fired, and the editor and managing editor of the paper resigned. However the damage caused by Blair led to a questioning via blogs of the paper's overall credibility. The damage was done, and the NYT's reputation as “the paper of record” was permanently tarnished.

Dan Rather was anchor for the CBS Evening News for 24 years. In 2004 Rather conducted a controversial documentary report which questioned President George W. Bush's military service. In the report, Rather held up a letter stating that President Bush had dodged the draft. However, a curious viewer recorded the show, and on further inspection discovered that the letter had been written with a Microsoft font, which had not been created in 1972, when the letter was supposedly written. This information was promptly voiced on a blog which then spread throughout the Internet and ultimately into the real world, leading to Rather's departure from CBS.

These three tales illustrate the extraordinary power of the blog, and its ability to impact negatively on brands. The commonality in the three episodes is that the affected institutions chose not to take the threats seriously, and paid a very high price for their intransigence.

Blogging as a phenomenon has been around for some time. Its origins can be traced back to 1994, when it began life as an online diary mechanism. Today it is one of the most extraordinary phenomena in the world, with millions of people sharing their thoughts, experiences and insights online.

If you are involved in any way with marketing, the blog and its ecosystem, the so-called blogosphere, is something you need to factor into your thinking and your strategy.

Viral marketing
Blogs can highlight inconsistencies in products and brands, and as such they can undo marketing messages, built at high cost. They represent viral marketing at its very best, and therefore they offer companies and individuals positive opportunities to promote their products and services.

But for marketers they also have a dark side, and they can have negative effects. It is thus essential that marketers understand the potential positives and negatives of blogs.

First of all, people only visit a blog, and return frequently, if it carries high-quality, compelling, current, credible content. Credibility and integrity are key: if you were to create a blog in which you wished to convey news or content regarding your products or services, the only way you would get people to come and view it is if the blogger were seen as independent and above doubt.

How to get it wrong
As an example of how to get it wrong, PR company Edelman in the US created a blog on behalf of Walmart in which a couple drove around the US, just “happening” to park their vehicle in Walmart parking lots. This backfired terribly when news got out, via the blogosphere, that it was a paid-for PR stunt. The damage was incalculable to both Walmart and Edelman.

The lesson here is clear: if you want to create a proactive blog that is going to lead to the creation of value for your brand, be very, very careful. And here, you would be well advised to research the whole concept of blogs intensely before embarking on what could be a minefield for your brand.

Secondly, many journalists have launched their own blogs. These journalists can be influenced through their blogs as much as they can through traditional media. This influence can be both positive and negative, and accordingly they need to be cultivated assiduously.

Thirdly, you need to factor the blogosphere into your overall PR crisis plan. What, you don't have one? Neither did Royal Canin when its pet food was exposed as containing the potentially lethal ingredient melamine. Neither did Kryptonite.

The fact is, you need a way to respond to and cope with a crisis, and with the sharp-eyed folk out there in the blogosphere monitoring every move of every company, a crisis could be no more than a mouse-click away. Every marketer should have factored this into their crisis communications plan. And it should be updated regularly, given the speed of development in this rapidly evolving sector.

Another important issue is that of defamation. The local courts have upheld that blogs can defame, an important decision given their potential reach and power. So companies and individuals do have recourse in the event of their being defamed, but a large corporate can do itself even more damage by taking action against a blog. This was certainly the case when Telkom launched legal action against Hellkom.co.za.

The challenge is vast: as of November 2006, blog search engine Technorati was tracking 57 million blogs. There are believed to be more than 110 million blogs in existence, with 12 000 being launched daily. Consensus is that there are 7,5 million blogs that are worth tracking, with 1,5 million that influence opinion.

The blogosphere is to date one of the most extreme expressions of democracy: as a marketer, are you ready to deal with it?


About Cambrient
Cambrient is a leading content management company in South Africa. Offering both services and software products, Cambrient is the most experienced local team in the industry, with almost 10 years' experience in the field.

The company has an extensive and excellent track record in servicing many small and large companies in the country – as well as some significant international customers.

Cambrient owns and manages its own software intellectual property, and has put in place a suite of products over the past five years which are regarded as world-class.

Its product suite includes a powerful content management system for large and medium organisations, as well as a business process management system, on which most of its large projects are based.

Services include a full spectrum of consulting services, project management, and website and Intranet development.

Cambrient believes in making a difference to the lives of end users, and its systems are designed with this in mind. Whether it's the software the company develops, or the advice it offers, Cambrient understands user needs when it comes to content management. The business is 100% privately held, and is based in Johannesburg, South Africa.

1 Aug 2007 14:30

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About the author

Jarred Cinman is a Director at Cambrient.




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