Written by Renske Wolters
Killer Coke, and other bad news you WANT to hear, acknowledge and act upon as a brand
Part 2. How to Handle Anti-Branding Hate Sites
In part 1 of this article the nature and impact of anti-branding hate sites has been discussed. This part will focus on how managers should handle when under attack of such a hate site. Kucuk (2008) divides anti-branding hate sites in four different types that can be handled in different ways. The Experts, the Symbolic Haters, the Complainers, and the Opportunists.
The Experts are the hate sites that discuss issues in an analytical way based on important market information. The creators of Expert hate sites have a lot of knowledge about markets, business practices and alternatives. The people behind these hate sites are anti-consumerism and oppose the consumption culture created by corporations. The group of Symbolic Haters are mostly sustained by negative word of mouth (WOM) or rumours in the market. Their arguments are rather based on suspicion then on actual facts. The internet has incredibly increased the spread of WOM, now also termed eWOM. Negative eWOM has a substantial negative effect on the brand image of companies and the purchase intention of customers (Sandes and Urdan, 2013). The third type, the Complainers, bring negative attention with their hate sites to companies with service scandals, often out of personal experience. Lastly, the Opportunists rely on companies’ failures that are covered by the media. Often, the Opportunities use these failures to increase traffic to their own site and attract attention.
To demonstrate an example of how a company reacted, and how a company should react to anti-branding hate sites we will have a look at the Killer Coke Case.
Killer Coke, how Coca Cola responds and how they should respond
Killercoke.org was launched in 2003 by two lawyers working for SINALTRAINAL, the major union representing Coca Cola workers in Colombia. The campaign “Stop Killer Coke” is demanding justice for workers and other parties harmed by Coca Cola. The hate site states that the company has abused its power for decades, while raking in billions by exploiting workers, communities and pressure water resources around the globe.
Killer Coke is a typical form of Kucuk’s (2008) Expert hate site. He suggests that a company should work together with Expert hate sites in order to benefit from the ‘free’ feedback it can provide which they otherwise would have to get through expansive customer surveys. To work together with hate sites the company should have clear what the level of hate should be that they will allow. Killer Coke is extremely hostile, which could be a reason that Coca Cola is not working together with this hate site. Another advice of Kucuk (2008) is to open up for dialogue with the customer to encourage mutual value creation. This is what Coca Cola also did not do, but what could have greatly helped them.
Kucuk’s (2008) strategies are not really applicable to the Killer Coke case, so the question remains how Coca Cola should have reacted. Luckily, Lawrence (2010) has come up with another article concerning the management of disputes with non-market stakeholders that can help to analyse this situation. Lawrence (2010) recognizes how the internet, and especially web 2.0, enables activists that are worried about business behaviour, to mobilize support around the globe in no time and that the damage to reputation in one location can quickly reverberate around the world. This was exactly the case for Coca Cola when the problems leading up to the Killer Coke campaign started in Carepa, a very small town in Colombia.
Lawrence (2010) states that there are typically four strategies that management can follow to handle disputes with (anti) customers. Companies can either Wage a fight, Withdraw, Work it out or Wait.
Wage a fight
With this strategy the company opposes the activists and proceeds on its chosen path in defiance of their wishes. The company wages a fight by filing lawsuits, physically intimidating stakeholders or relying on the police or authority or the state.
By operating under this strategy, management will decide to withdraw completely from the area of dispute and to move to a place where there is less opposition.
This is a conscious strategy for the company of simply waiting for the conditions to shift.
Work it out
In this strategy the management will actively engage with the stakeholder to arrive at solutions that are mutually acceptable.
The strategy a company chooses to handle anti-branding activist, depends on how depended the company is on the activists, the power of the firm and the urgency to act upon the campaign. Figure 1 shows how in different situations different strategies might be applicable.
When Killer Coke initially started, the dependence of Coca Cola on the activists was high. The activists at that time (mid-2000’s) were trying to organize a national boycott. Therefore, the urgency to act upon this was high as well. As a strong brand Coca Cola has a high firm power as well. As shown in figure 1 the most suiting action therefore would be to “work it out”. Though, Coca Cola went through two of the mentioned strategies, it did not go through this one.
In the early 2000’s the first anti-branding letters were sent to Coca Cola by activists, notifying the firm of the horrors happening in Colombia and that they needed to see a difference. The Coca Cola Company completely ignored this letters (Collingsworth, 2002). Coca Cola pulled a typical strategy of to “wait”. The company must have underestimated how quickly things could escalate through the internet and expected the issue to blow over.
The contrary happened: SINALTRAINAL started to widely spread the news and launched the hate site and the Killer Coke campaign. The campaign was preaching mainly to students and trade unions, to ban the Coca Cola products from universities. The hate site helped to collectively organize opposition and lawsuits against Coca Cola. Many universities voted to boycott the Coca Cola products (KillerCoke, 2014). In reaction to this, Coca Cola aggressively took on the critics – they waged a fight. They denied wrong doings, forcibly ejected activists from meetings, defended themselves and established a counter website, cokefacts.org (Lawrence, 2013). This however, did not solve the company’s problem. As stated by Geoff Wright (2003):
“When students at Ireland's
largest university, University College Dublin, voted in October to ban the on-campus
sale of Coke products in solidarity with SINALTRAINAL, Coke sent executives to
Ireland to force a second vote in the hope of overturning the ban. The result? The
ban was upheld by an even wider margin.”
The company chose to fight, while a “work it out” approach could have been more effective. Coca Cola can follow the example of Ikea when it was accused of child labour. Ikea directly took action, consulting with child labour organizations, adopted a clause in supply contracts, worked together with organizations like UNICEF and Safe the Children (Bartlett, Dessain and Sjöman, 2006). The company applied a code of conduct and even set up a special purchasing system, the Ikea Way on Purchasing Products. These actions in the end helped to build the strong reputation Ikea has concerning CSR (Tony, Simcic, Majken, 2004). Ikea’s active approach showed the world they cared, whereas Coca Cola initially turned their back and later fought. To show that you care is in a situation like this very important, especially since it is increasingly important to not only show that you have economic value as company but also social value (Roper & Fill, 2012).
The internet provides many opportunities that Coca Cola could have grasped as well. The internet, and especially social media, is a key factor these days in managing your corporate reputation (Corporate Reputation, 2011). Coca Cola should have used internet as a tool to communicate, show they care, that they are working to solve the problem and to open up for dialogue.
Rather safe than sorry… and some bribing.
Thorough evaluation of the different strategies a company can adapt when under attack of hate sites can definitely limit the damage. Some companies however, also have taken prevention measurements by, for example, buying the possible hate domain names that could disparage the firm (Pitt et al., 2002). Other strategies that companies might try to get hate sites down is by directly contacting the person who set it up and offer to solve the problem (when possible). Offer the anti-brander to purchase the domain name or offering him money, coupons or gift in effort to take down the site is also a possibility. When a company chooses to approach the website it should be done in all subtlety and politeness as it is very likely that the anti-brander will post the approach on his/her website which can make the company look even worse (New Media Institute, 2006).
So let us have another look at the research question in the beginning of this article and to which extend this research has helped to answer them.
- What exactly are anti-branding hate sites?
o Who are the people that set up anti-branding hate sites?
o What are the motives of setting up anti-branding hate sites?
o Who are the anti-branding hate sites targeting?
o What effect do anti-branding hate sites have on targeted companies?
- How should management react when under attack of anti-branding hate sites?
The rise of internet 2.0 has greatly changed the power dynamics between companies and customers. Customers can more easily raise their voice whenever dissatisfied with a company. One form of activism is the formation of anti-branding hate sites. These hate sites are formed by anti-branding communities. They serve as place where customers that are discontent with a brand come together to collectively take action.
The people that set up hate sites are often ex-employees, people that have had bad experiences with the company or people that are against the political or social behaviour of the company. By setting up hate sites, these people try to influence companies to such an extent that the firms will change their behaviour.
The anti-branding hate sites are mainly targeting strong brands as they have more influence but also because the strong, global brands have had a big impact on the negative issues arising with globalisation.
The effect of hate sites is an interesting subject for future research as it has been hard to find concrete results or numbers of the direct impact that hate sites have on the brand. However, research has identified that hate sites negatively influence factors such as brand identity, image, customers purchase desire and market share. Furthermore, as has been shown in the Killer Coke case, hate sites can lead to boycotting of the product.
So it is clear now that you as manager WANT to know when you are being under attack of a hate site to be able to act upon it. Therefore, careful monitoring of the internet is a must. Once your company is under attack you must carefully evaluate all four options stated by Lawrence (2013). Do you want to wait? Withdraw? Wage a fight? Work it out? The choice of strategy depends on the urgency, your firms strength and the dependability on the activists. Once the best suitable strategy is chosen, be aware of all the opportunities internet is throwing at you to communicate. When suitable, open the dialogue to your customer, seize the opportunities, be approachable and remember showing care can go a long way. Last, but certainly not least, never underestimate the power anti-branding communities can attain!
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