Written by Masters Student at Lund University
- How should firms respond to the challenges posed by anti-brand sites?
The new information technology has changed the environment in which companies and consumers co-exist, and the consumers are no longer passive recipients of information and brand value (Christodoulides, 2009; Rowley, 2004). Internet has made the one-to-many communication obsolete and it has been replaced by a many-to-many communication, where the consumers actively engage in conversation with each other and the company (Christodoulides, 2009). Hence, the new interactive media has made the consumer both the initiator and recipient of information exchanges (Hanna, Rohm, & Crittenden, 2011). Nowadays, consumers share information and experiences about brands on different forums and websites, which have made it impossible for firms to control everything that is being said about their brand. As a result branding online needs to be viewed as a co-creation process between consumers and firms (Christodoulides, 2009; Singh & Sonnenburg, 2012).
The ability to express and share opinions in real time with a broad audience in an efficient and convenient way online, has not only caught the attention of loving consumers but also activists (Krishnamurth & Kucuk, 2009; Hollenbeck& Zinkhan, 2006). One of the most developed forms of online consumer activism is the anti-brand site (Krishnamurth & Kucuk, 2009).
Consumers that cluster together to criticize a brand on an anti-brand site can damage the brand identity severely (Avery & Fournier, 2011; Kucuk, 2008). However, complaints published on the Internet do not have to accelerate into brand distortion. If the complaints can be turned into a learning experience they may actually strengthen the brand value over time (Avery & Fournier, 2011).
Recent research has shown that strong brands tend to become targets of consumer activism to a greater extent than other because of their status as category leaders within their industry (Krishnamurth & Kucuk, 2009; Avery & Fournier, 2011. Therefore they not only attract love from fans but also hate from the public. In that sense size and strength has become a liability, which is an interesting contribution to the current literature as it mostly focuses on the positive aspects of brand strength (Krishnamurth & Kucuk, 2009; Avery & Fournier, 2011).
The growing number of anti-brand sites poses new challenges for brand managers and the current literature studying this phenomenon is still quite limited (Krishnamurth & Kucuk, 2009). Therefore, the purpose of this paper is to conduct principles that guide “Strong Brands” in how they should respond to the critique on anti-brand sites when branding online. The typology of anti-brand sites presented by Kucuk (2008) will be used when analyzing and discussing the research questions mentioned below.
How should firms respond to consumer activism on anti-brand sites to prevent brand distortion?
To what extent can the typology of anti-brands sites presented by Kucuk (2008) be used when analyzing anti-brand websites?
Anti-Brand sites and Action strategies
According to Krishnamurth and Kucuk (2009, pp.1119) ”anti-brand web sites are spaces that focus negative attention on a specific targeted brand.” These sites use negative visual expressions, memorable domain names (often including the brand name itself) and offensive language to damage the brand’s identity (Krishnamurth & Kucuk 2009). Anti-brand sites are usually community-oriented and they are often used to exchange negative experiences, organize boycotts and lawsuits (Krishnamurth & Kucuk 2009; Kucuk, 2008). Complaints expressed on these sites are not only focused around transactional dissatisfaction, instead they evolve around everything from ethical to legal matters (Krishnamurth & Kucuk 2009). In many cases these sites are protected by law, American federal law protects these sites as long as they do not generate profit or can be confused with the original brand website (Petty, 2012; Spinello, 2006).
As mentioned anti-brand sites aim to negatively impact the brand identity, which may affect the consumers’ purchasing decisions and the brand’s market share. However, these sites can also indirectly present opportunities for the firm. For that reason Kucuk (2008) created four strategies for those companies that want to benefit and control the mentioned negative aspects of anti-brand sites. The four strategies will be presented below.
Work with experts
Some of the anti-brand sites are created by Experts within the specific field where the company acts. These experts may actually shed light on problems that can be used by the company to increase the value creation in the future (Kucuk, 2008). How a firm should respond to these sites depends on the level of hostility and the value of the information shared. If the anger is manageable and the expertise is valuable, the company should try to create an open dialogue with the consumers to enhance the value for both the consumers and the firm itself (Kucuk, 2008).
Monitor Symbolic Haters
A different type of consumer identified by Kucuk (2008) is the Symbolic Hater, who is strongly influenced by negative word-of-mouth (WOM) in the market. Sites that are created by Symbolic haters should therefore be closely monitored and companies should try to gain control over the things being said about the brand. A great way to try to influence the Symbolic hater is by encouraging them to interact with the brand and its satisfied consumers on different communication forums (Kucuk, 2008).
Talk to complainers
The third group of consumers identified by Kucuk (2008) is called Complainers, and these are the consumers that initially were satisfied with the company but which have become dissatisfied. Sites created by Complainers focus on major service scandals, and companies involved should therefore try to solve the dissatisfaction issues before the brand identity is affected. It is important to monitor these sites regularly to detect issues early on and try to learn from the complaints. By doing this companies have the opportunity to develop their products/services and stop the negative WOM before it spreads to the entire market (Kucuk, 2008).
These consumers try to steal web traffic from the original brand site by publishing scandalous rumors about the brand (Kucuk, 2008). Sites that have this purpose can become very harmful as they gain higher visibility and traffic. In an attempt to prevent such sites, firms can buy potential negative domain names that are easily targeted by opportunists. Companies need to be aware of opportunists on the Internet and they should be ready to take action against them if the brand is hurt by the traffic to the site (Kucuk, 2008).
Discussion and Empirical examples
Many category leaders are targets of anti-brand sites and their reactions to these sites vary a lot. According to Kucuk (2008) it seems as if the majority of firms choose to ignore the impact of these sites, but at the same time there are those who take legal actions to prevent the brand form deteriorating. Below two strong brands and their actions are analyzed.
The multinational fast food giant McDonald’s is one of the many companies that have been targeted by different anti-brand sites. Two of the more well known are Anti-McDonald’s and McSpotlight (Kucuk, 2008). According to Kucuk’s typology of anti-brand sites these two could be categorized as Experts due to the content published on these sites. They both give detailed examples of how McDonald’s production process harm the environment (Kucuk, 2008) and discuss issues such as employment and advertising. The fact that they link to current lawsuits and trials (McSpotlight, n.d.; Anti-McDonald’s, n.d.) sets them apart from other protest sites (Kucuk, 2008). The public pressure that McDonald’s has endured over the last years has forced them to become more aware of their corporate social responsibility. The effect that the two above mentioned anti-brand sites have had on the company’s decisions is hard to say, but it seems as if they have tried to make use of the feedback given by the public to create a more sustainable corporation which can be read about on the corporate webpage (McDonalds, n.d.). The fact that McDonald’s hasn’t taken any apparent legal actions against the websites may be explained by the fact that the hostility level of these sites is manageable and do not pose an acute threat to the brand’s identity. McDonald’s reaction to these two sites is in line with Kucuk’s (2008) recommendations mentioned above.
Starbucks is another strong brand that has been caught in crossfire of consumers protesting against globalization (Avery & Fournier, 2011). The anti-brand site Starbucked.com has gained a lot of attention since it was registered in 1990. The site started out as a regular complaint site but has over the years become a way to strengthen the Starbucks opposition and help independent coffee shops grow (Hicks, 2011). The initial purpose of this site would fit with Kucuk’s third strategy, Talk to complainers, but has nowadays characteristics that resemble both an Expert’s site and a Symbolic hater. Jeremy Dorosin’s (founder of the site) mission is thus not only to target Starbucks but also to protest against the fast-moving, corporate climate in the USA (Hicks, 2011). According to Jeremy Dorosin Starbucks has never tried to shut down the site, which probably is a tactical decision made by Starbucks since an action like that might turn more people against them (Hicks, 2011).
Other Symbolic hates sites such as ihatestarbucks.com have also targeted Starbucks (Kucuk, 2008). This site provides a communication forum for those who hate Starbucks because of its trendiness and lack of individuality. The site consists of personal comments about the brand (Ihatestarbucks, n.d.), and does not seem as trustworthy as an Expert’s site. The messages and information found on this site do not have the same value to the company as the feedback found on Expert’s site, however Starbucks should keep an eye on these sites to be aware of the negative WOM surrounding the company (Kucuk, 2008). To create a dialogue with their consumers Starbucks has given the public the ability to engage with the company and other consumers through online communities such as twitter, Facebook and my Starbucks idea (Starbucks, 2013). According to Kucuk (2008) communication forums are a great way to get unsatisfied consumers in contact with the company and their satisfied consumers. By opening up for a dialogue they may be able to change these consumers impression of the brand.
As this paper shows anti-brand sites target many strong brands. When analyzing Starbucks and McDonald’s reactions to their anti-brand sites it became evident that empirical information of this kind is hard to find. Since the anti-brand sites analyzed in this paper still are alive it seems as if the companies have not taken any legal actions to shut them down. This may be explained by the fact that law often protects these sites and that it would be hard to prove them guilty of infringement. However, there are many other actions to take to prevent these sites from damaging the brand identity. By closely monitoring these sites’ intentions and reaching out to unsatisfied consumers, firms can turn complaints into learning experiences and protect themselves against brand distortion. It may seem as a simple recipe, but apparently something that is often ignored according to Kucuk (2008). The examples discussed above may confirm this to a certain degree, but more empirical material is needed to draw a final conclusion. What could be said is that both companies have acknowledged that there is a movement against the brand and they have to a certain extent tried to adhere to what they have to say. McDonald’s has tried to put the consumer at the centre of the value-creation process by becoming more socially responsible and Starbucks has opened up for a dialogue with their consumers. However, little information has been found about their engagement in monitoring these sites, which could be an interesting subject for future research.
Kucuk’s typology of anti-brand sites proved to be an interesting way of analyzing the different anti-brand sites. However, categorizing the different sites was difficult and since the recommended actions very quite similar regardless of the type of site a revision of the categories may benefit future research.
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