Social Media Strikes Back: Leveraging Anti-Brand Websites as a Learning Tool

Introduction

We live in a world of Web 2.0 which has changed a marketer’s playing field tremendously. Consumers shifted from passive recipients of marketing messages to active co-creators of meaning (Vargo & Lusch, 2004; Holt, 2002; Winer, 2009). Countless social media platforms provide information and the opportunity to influence and to connect with each other (Hanna, Rohm & Crittenden, 2011). Although social media offers a lot of opportunities, there are also challenges ahead for brands. This new form of individual empowerment on the Internet has made it easier to engage in anti-branding to share negative experiences about brands. According to Krishnamurthy and Kucuk (2009), the number of such anti-branding websites has risen from 550 at the end of 1997 to 10,500 at the end of 2004. Marketers need to be aware of this development and need to educate themselves on how to deal with them. This holds especially true in companies with strong brands as they are more likely to be the target of such websites (Krishnamurthy & Kucuk, 2009; Fournier & Avery, 2011). I argue that marketers should practice precaution, but also see such websites as a learning opportunity. Therefore the purpose of this paper is to show by means of the Domino’s Pizza case study that anti-brand websites can be a valuable learning tool for marketers and can help turnaround a brand’s image.

Anti-Brand Websites:  The five W-Questions answered

According to Krishnamurthy and Kucuk (2009) anti-brand websites use visual expression, easy to remember domain names and negative language to create a negative brand image. These websites are focused upon questionable business practices or socially irresponsible actions and are different from websites that display mere dissatisfaction with a company’s services or products as they often address a wider range of issues (cultural, technological, political, legal issues). However, not always is the line clear between these wider issues and mere dissatisfaction such as in the case of the web domain ‘untied.com’ (referring to United Airlines) which is a pure anti-branding site, but also demonstrates simple complaints which concern the airline’s services. All of these websites have varying expertise and hostility levels which need to be analyzed individually (Kucuk, 2008).

 In order for such a website to be established, two conditions need to be true: ‘consumer empowerment’ as a precondition and ‘consumer dissatisfaction’ as a trigger. Consumers are empowered technologically by the Internet, economically due to greater information access, socially due to increased social interaction and organization and legally due to greater access to legal information. Dissatisfaction triggers may be transactional concerning a retailer’s level of service or product, ideological concerning the economic system and market dissatisfaction concerning business practices. This dissatisfaction manifests itself into four types of consumer segments: passives, voicers, irates and activists in which activists are most likely the organizers of such websites (Singh in Krishnamurthy & Kucuk, 2009). These websites exchange information, organize boycotts and coordinate lawsuits with the help of social media platforms as they re-take control of a brand’s messaging which can in the long-term be harmful to a brand’s reputation. For example, a country singer’s guitar was damaged by United Airlines which led to ‘United Breaks Guitars’ music videos generating over 10 million YouTube views (Deighton & Kornfeld in Fournier & Avery, 2011).

Anti-brand websites are a form of brand community. “A brand community is a specialized, non-geographically bound community, based on a structured set of social relationships among admirers of a brand” (Muniz & O’Guinn, 2001, p.412). In this case admirers can be replaced by haters. Furthermore, they are marked by a shared consciousness, rituals and traditions, and a sense of moral responsibility. Brands who established brand communities such as Lego and Starbucks have in many cases successfully used social media as a crowdsourcing tool for brand decisions and tasks (Fournier & Avery, 2011; Arvidsson, 2005; Bayus, 2013). A recent study performed in 2010 by KRC Research surveyed 216 executives in Fortune 2000 companies and found that 44% of executives already see the value of crowdsourcing in corporate  social responsibility (CSR) efforts as well (Shandwick, 2010). Anti-brand websites can be used in the same way as they are also communities with the same markers (Hollenback & Zinkhan in Awasthi, Sharma & Gulatti, 2012). So why not leverage anti-brand communities? One brand that has turned around utilizing anti-brand websites is Domino’s Pizza following the MALI cycle- monitor, assess, learn, and improve.

The Domino’s Pizza Case” The Pizza Turnaround Campaign”

In 2009, Domino’s image was probably at its worst when a video surfaced in which rogue employees mishandled pizzas (Stanley, 2010). This only fed the complaints such as that the pizzas had “sauce that tastes like ketchup” and “crust that tastes like cardboard” showcasing obvious problems with product quality (Fournier & Avery, 2011). Sales were down in 2009 by 5% and the chain had experienced seven negative quarters in a row (Stanley, 2010).

Picture 1: Marketing Director at Domino’s faces criticism (Advertolog.com, 2013)

Picture 1: Marketing Director at Domino’s faces criticism (Advertolog.com, 2013)

Domino’s decided not to hide the criticism, but to engage in a complete product redesign and self-deprecating marketing campaign. They leveraged anti-brand websites and comments on social media, their website, packaging boxes and by holding focus groups. The ads showed actual videos of focus groups and comments on social media describing how bad the pizzas were.

The campaign used bold slogans such as “

Did we actually face our critics and reinvent our pizza from the crust up? Oh Yes We Did!” and “We listened”.

The company used social media and $75 million dollars of traditional advertising to seed to its critics with completely new products (less than the competition spent). Domino’s head chef even hand-delivered the new pizzas to the former participants of the original focus group.

Picture 2: The Pizza Turnaround Campaign (Blog: Stepanic, 2012)

Picture 2: The Pizza Turnaround Campaign (Blog: Stepanic, 2012)

The campaign was launched on December 28 in 2009 in a declining industry at that time. Already quarter one same store sales in 2010 rose by 14.3% compared to the previous year. In the second quarter of 2010, the company had gained 1.8 points in market share. Up to 2011, Domino’s gained over 2 billion free media impressions. Research has also shown that consumer sentiment toward the brand is shifting and that feelings of disconnection and disappointment are greatly reduced (Advertising Research Foundation, 2011). My own investigation of the top results of anti-brand websites regarding Domino’s showed that some people are still not happy with the product quality, but far more critique can be attributed to employees’ driving style and the company’s service at the moment (see ihatedominospizza and dominossucks).

The case showed clearly that anti-brand websites and customer criticism can be positively utilized. The company followed the MALI cycle and created an award-winning campaign. Domino’s leveraged empowered consumers who took the effort to voice their dissatisfaction of the product.  They correctly have monitored and assessed what is being said about the company in social media and elsewhere. Accordingly, the hostility was at a manageable level for the company to control and the expertise demonstrated by the commentators was sufficient as well as suggested by Kucuk (2008). In this case, anyone who enjoys pizza can be seen as an “expert”. By listening actively to complaints and encouraging feedback through various research instruments, Domino’s was able to learn what was wrong with their current pizza recipes. The campaign was such a success that the company decided to keep it alive in order to constantly leverage criticism and turn it into an opportunity for learning. Unfortunately, the state of anti-brand websites against Domino’s Pizza before and after the campaign cannot be accurately measured, but would be very interesting to do in order to see if the number of anti-Domino websites actually decreased afterwards. Domino’s Pizza is only one case that was able to leverage criticism in order to completely redesign its product and rejuvenate its business function. However, it should be noted that the company only had to deal with “soft” criticism as they are not being targeted as a socially irresponsible company with questionable business practices. Therefore, further research in this area should be conducted.

What should be the game plan?

Precaution is most advisable in dealing with anti-brand websites and it is my opinion that proactive brand risk management is critical. A first step for prevention would be to buy harmful domain names before they become a weapon. However, not every single website should be taken equally serious. First, a company needs to monitor and assess the “hostility” and “expertise” levels of these websites according to Kucuk (2008, p. 218). The trade-off between those two levels is an indication as to how much negativity a company should tolerate before entering in collaboration with the users of such websites. Only when a manageable level of hostility coupled with a good level of expertise is reached, a company should start collaboration. As a company most likely has numerous anti-brand websites against them, a tool is needed for categorization in order to assess these levels. I believe that a model which can be adapted for this purpose is the “Honeycomb of Social Media” (Figure 1) by Kietzman et al (2011). Identity can be used to identify key players and the extent to how much they reveal their identities. Conversations, the extent to which users communicate with others can be used to measure conversation velocity: the rate and direction of change in a conversation. The rate of change is the number of new conversations over a specific period of time and the direction of change refers to continuity-discontinuity of a conversation. Sharing, the extent to which content circulates can be used to identify the level of users’ knowledge and activism. Presence, the extent to which users know if other users are accessible is an indicator of how influential and intimate conversations are. Relationships, the extent to which users can be related to others, can be an indicator of how widespread the site’s reach is. Reputation, the extent to which users can identify the standing of others can be used as well to identify key players. Groups, the extent to which users can form communities is probably not as applicable as one anti-brand website already constitutes of a community. However, if there are sub-groups, this can be a way to identify them and their specific goals. Altogether, the analysis can pinpoint expertise and hostility levels of each website.

Figure 1: The Honeycomb of Social Media (Kietzman et al., 2011)

Figure 1: The Honeycomb of Social Media (Kietzman et al., 2011)

Concluding it can be said that anti-brand websites can be used to develop products and services, to stop the negativity and even to rejuvenate business functions (Hollenbeck & Zinkhan, 2006). Anti-brand websites are a part of the social media world and are a free source of information for brands. I agree with Cova and Dalli (2009, p.319) that “resistant behaviors- even antagonist ones – can be regarded as ‘constructive’, as they give rise to new business opportunities and market value”. However, most marketers still seem to be reluctant to leverage anti-brand websites and rather try to ignore them even though it has been shown that it can be a great opportunity. As stated earlier, crowdsourcing has not only great value in brands decisions and tasks, but also in CSR efforts. As anti-brand websites also tend to focus on wider issues besides mere dissatisfaction, these issues can be leveraged and addressed in CSR programs. If programs would spring from anti-brand websites, it would actually make them more meaningful as it is what people truly want. However, this has not quite been the case today. According to Luo and Du (2012), it is clear however, that CSR programs are becoming a clear priority. They furthermore suggest that CSR programs can be a great source for innovation. Therefore, I argue that brands should get inspired from their worst enemies and utilize the MALI cycle: monitor, assess, learn and improve. It would be interesting to see future research in this area to accurately analyze changes in perception and long-term effects.

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