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Avoiding Collisions on the Social Web

  |  December 23, 2009   |  Comments

Lessons from MSN China, HÄagen-Dazs, Costco, and American Express.

Last week, the social Web felt a bit like a bad holiday sale...as some notable brands suffered collisions with their respective audiences. The combination of business processes and the consumer reactions, expressed via social media, played a role in each of them.

MSN China Under Fire

The first involved Microsoft and its team in China: wanting to add to its online conversational tools, the firm commissioned development of a microblog-style tool for its MSN China site. While still not sorted out completely, what happened last week was, to say the least, an embarrassment for a firm lobbying for a stronger stance against counterfeit software and the general disregard for intellectual property. You can read the initial report at ReadWriteWeb, as well as Microsoft's own response.

To be sure, Microsoft is ultimately responsible for the content it places on its own site. At the same time, though the issue of who actually misappropriated what was (and still is) unclear, it was largely assumed to rest with Microsoft. If you're running an established brand, your duty is to take the extra steps to ensure that these types of things never happen: correctly or incorrectly, you'll end up taking disproportionate blame out on the social Web, as a quick search of Twitter makes clear in this case.

HÄagen-Dazs: Freezing Out Customers

Next up: HÄagen-Dazs. In a campaign so poorly executed it defies belief, the premium ice cream maker "announced" that its newest stores in India were open only to holders of "International Passports," a message conveyed on large, official signage outside the stores. Duly noting that there's no such thing as an "international passport," the message was interpreted as "except Indian nationals." Whether inadvertent, careless, or a bone-headed attempt at "clever," the result was nothing short of an explosion.

I saw the first posts on Twitter early in the morning, and by the time the U.S. woke up it had spread to Boing Boing, meaning this was mainstream, global news. A few retractions and a confused explanation, claiming that what was really meant was "a taste of abroad at home," didn't help.

The message here is again that the brand -- not the isolated event -- takes the full brunt of the impact. As a HÄagen-Dazs fan, I'm quite sure that the company didn't intend to refuse service to anyone, and in particular based on nationality. Yet, reading the official corporate signage that carried the message, it was hard not to draw this conclusion. The real failing, in my mind, occurred at a fundamental business level, where lack of proper market understanding and oversight for campaign execution added up to a public disaster. This is analogous to the Microsoft/Plurk case, with the result in both cases being a strong public backlash.

Social business practices emerging in firms like the Dachis Group in Austin, TX, and 2020Social, an agency based in New Delhi, India, are representative of emerging digital practices increasingly focused on the business connections being driven by social media. (Disclosure: I work for 2020Social.)

Social business strategy, simply, is built around the idea that scenarios like the two above can be avoided when a holistic view of the social Web and its fundamental connection to business are fully appreciated. Connecting market conversations to internal processes, employees to each other and to customers, customers to other customers, and so on results in a view of the entire marketing and operations cycle that makes it easier to spot potential disasters before they happen...and facilitates a rapid, effective response when they do.

Amex/Costco Platinum Card Shows Its True Color

As the week was settling back down, I was at the Delhi International Airport, where I noticed the new American Express Platinum Lounge in the airport and thought, "I've got a Platinum Card...wonder what the lounge is all about?" I walked over to the lounge, produced said card, and was politely turned away. Member since '82. Hmm.

It turns out that my "Platinum Card" isn't really a Platinum Card: issued by Costco, it's silvery (platinumy?) in color and says "Platinum" on it...but it works more like the "name brand limited edition" software that comes preinstalled on your laptop. To be clear, the lounge agent in Delhi was great: she was polite and very professional. She explained which Platinum Cards were acceptable and which weren't. True to American Express standards, she was an excellent brand ambassador.

As for the product manager who designed the Costco/Amex Platinum Card, I have distinctly less regard. Having been issued a Gold Card in the '80s (yes, I'm that old, and yes, all clichés apply), I always appreciate the fact that Amex provides different cards for different applications.

My question is this: why was it branded "Platinum" if it really isn't "Platinum?" My conclusion is: "to convey Platinum in the hopes I'd never notice." What other explanation is there? Amex offers green, gold, blue, silver-ish, black, purple...why not a red Costco card? Rather than tapping the Platinum brand -- and then having to explain to members why it isn't --why not brand it as a product of its own and be straight-forward about the many benefits the card does provide? In this age of hyper-social connectivity and free-flowing market conversations, brand managers ought to work with product developers to exceed expectations rather than provide fodder for negative conversations.

How does the social Web factor in here? One word: Twitter. I posted my comments on the experience on Twitter: among the responses, was one from Amex, to its credit. The response was "Sorry about the confusion, but the Airport Club benefit is for our Platinum charge cardholders." A friend subsequently pointed out, again via Twitter, that the Costco site no longer includes the Platinum branding. Oddly, I've yet to hear from Costco, through any channel.

As a savvy, contemporary product manager, take full responsibility for your product or service, and enlist employees, customers, everyone...in helping you set and maintain your standards. Take a holistic view, and be extremely careful with translations and "international" campaigns that may be taken the wrong way. Markets are connected, and no one likes to be excluded. Finally, rather than steering into brand confusion and letdown, be transparent and forthright when developing products and services. Anything less is a sure way to start the conversations you really don't want.

In closing out 2009, my wish to you and your friends and family for a very happy holiday and safe New Year's. See you in 2010, on January 6.

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Dave Evans

Dave is the VP of social strategy at Lithium. Based in Austin, Dave is also the author of best-selling "Social Media Marketing: An Hour a Day," as well as "Social Media Marketing: The Next Generation of Business Engagement." Dave is a regular columnist for ClickZ, a frequent keynoter, and leads social technology and measurement workshops with the American Marketing Association as well as Social Media Executive Seminars, a C-level business training provider.

Dave has worked in social technology consulting and development around the world: with India's Publicis|2020media and its clients including the Bengaluru International Airport, Intel, Dell, United Brands, and Pepsico and with Austin's FG SQUARED and GSD&M| IdeaCity and clients including PGi, Southwest Airlines, AARP, Wal-Mart, and the PGA TOUR. Dave serves on the advisory boards for social technology startups including Palo Alto-based Friend2Friend and Mountain View-based Netbase and iGoals.

Prior, Dave was a co-founder of social customer care technology provider Social Dynamx, a product manager with Progressive Insurance, and a systems analyst with NASA| Jet Propulsion Labs. Dave co-founded Digital Voodoo, a web technology consultancy, in 1994. Dave holds a BS in physics and mathematics from the State University of New York/ Brockport and has served on the Advisory Board for ad:tech and the Measurement and Metrics Council with WOMMA.

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