Six Pixels of Separation - The Blog
April 21, 2011 3:24 PM

Defensive Branding

Should brands respond to all negative comments?

The common held response to a question like that is usually a stern and obvious, "yes!" In theory, it makes perfect sense. In practice, what do you think is really going on? From a customer relationship management standpoint, it's clear that every complaint can best be viewed as an opportunity for a brand to connect to a customer (my often trotted-out line of "real interactions between real human beings" comes to mind... again). The theorists will also push that every complaint is a blessing too. Still, in boardrooms and in hallway conversations at conferences, the brand managers will let you know that not all customers are created equally and neither are their complaints.

Fair or not... it is what it is.

This needs more of a back-story: for decades brands dealt with complaints in a private manner. If things got out of hand, the local newspaper might show up on their doorstep. If the brand was big enough and the complaint matched, they could have wound up on 60 Minutes. None of those scenarios were ideal and the negative word of mouth was powerful. We can probably all recount instances of a local restaurant that never succeeded because of poor service. Things have changed. Social Media has brought brands - kicking and screaming - into a world where they must defend their values (on a daily basis) in many different spaces (Blogs and YouTube to customer review sites and Twitter). Some are coping with this change and encourage the back and forth with their customers, while many other brands either sit on the sidelines or spend their days placing their feet firmly in their collective mouths as they stumble through the process of customer service in a live and real-time world where everyone can witness how the stories unfold. Trust me, regardless of the brand they would much prefer if Social Media went away tomorrow so that they can go back to the good old days of spinning the story, controlling the message and resolving matters privately.

Defensive branding can be dangerous.

Defining the brand experience must evolve with these times. Great brands can no longer be defined as the ones who have a pristine record. More often than not, some of the better brand stories come out of scenarios where the brand is at fault and it's their redemption that turns the tide (ever-so-slightly). We often prop up case studies of bloodied and beaten brands who have returned to glory as if we were writing a script for the next Rocky movie. Who doesn't love a great tale of comeback? But, as Marketers, we have to be careful.

It's all about the brand posture. 

Entering Social Media with a defensive posture ("we're here to respond to all complaints!" or "we're here to ensure that if someone says something negative about us, we're listening!") immediately puts brands on the defensive, and if that's the posture they create in these digital spaces, that too shall be how their consumers, fans and potential clients engage with them. Undoubtedly, the best brands are the ones that can resolve an issue quickly and effectively, but it's also true that the brands who make the biggest strides spend even more time (in fact, in the multiples) creating positive branding experiences (valuable content, smart applications, engaging opportunities, etc...). It seems obvious, but we don't see enough of this.

Yes, brands should do their best to respond to the negative, but they should do even more to not be perceived as being in a constant state of defensive branding. It's exhausting. For the customers and the brand.

By Mitch Joel