Safeguarding the Crown Jewels With Online Brand Monitoring

The most valuable asset of a company is its good name. Yet the rapid growth of the Internet and the explosion of social media, in particular, have made it infinitely more challenging for a company to protect its good name. Recent examples abound of how, owing to the viral effect of social media, ordinary people now wield the power to do untold harm to a brand.

Consider the case of Domino’s Pizza. In April, the fast food chain’s brand reputation was dealt a serious blow when two of its employees posted a YouTube video of themselves engaged in a series of health code violations. The video was subsequently viewed by millions of consumers. Suddenly, 125,000 Domino’s workers in more than 60 countries around the world found themselves taking far fewer food delivery orders.

Today, companies are embracing brand reputation management as a strategic imperative and are increasingly turning to online monitoring in their efforts to prevent their public image from becoming tarnished. Online brand reputation protection is broad in scope. It can mean monitoring for the misappropriation of a brand trademark by fraudsters intent on confusing consumers for monetary gain.

An all-to-common example is phishing attacks, which often result in large financial losses and, in some cases, an erosion of brand trust. Another example: fraudsters who set up online pharmacies that ship bogus drugs. These criminal operations promote themselves through social media, often shutting down shop just in time to evade law enforcement officials.

Online brand protection and reputation management can also mean monitoring for less malicious — although perhaps equally damaging — infractions, such as the unauthorized use of a brand logo. Importantly, it can mean monitoring for negative brand information (and misinformation) from online consumers that appears on peer-to-peer networks and other social media platforms. The red flag can be something as benign as a blog rant about a bad hotel experience or an electronic gadget that functions improperly or simply below expectations.

Companies have every reason to want to catch these issues at the first possible moment and take appropriate action. In the case of Domino’s Pizza, the president of the company responded almost immediately with a video reassuring customers that the company maintains the highest standards for cleanliness in food preparation, while acknowledging that the incident “caused a lot of damage” to the brand.

Timing Is Everything

Even as the online world unleashes new opportunities to attack a company’s brand reputation, social media monitoring is providing much of the heavy artillery needed to identify and respond to these threats in a defensive (and even preemptive) manner. Beyond the spread of negative opinion, including false rumors about a brand, these threats can extend into the realm of brand infringement, information leaks and even illegal online distribution. Consider: Chatter about product packaging (e.g., a product manufactured in the United States has instructions printed in Mandarin) or even patterns in sentiment analysis (e.g., customers raving about unreasonably good deals from a specific e-commerce storefront) can reveal counterfeiting activities or the existence of an unauthorized reseller channel. Of course, the sooner these infractions are identified and acted upon, the better.

In fact, given the need to respond to potential threats as quickly as possible, companies should think in terms of triggers. A trigger is a device that automatically executes a response to a certain action or event. A particular type of comment on a blog posting or in a peer-to-peer network, for example, may signal the need to automatically take certain actions to resolve a problem. Real-time alerts can be used to notify decision-makers in the marketing risk or security organizations of any issues that require immediate attention.

One key metric to consider in this context is “time to brand-threat information,” which can be defined as the time that transpires between the identification of a potential threat to a company’s brand reputation and the communication of that information to key decision-makers. Using online monitoring and analysis to deliver information to key decision-makers within minutes or hours instead of days or weeks, companies may be able to keep a spark of negative consumer opinion or other brand devaluation issue from igniting into a wildfire that ultimately threatens company reputation, profitability and shareholder value.

Another key metric to consider is speed to incident response. How quickly did the organization, upon learning of the potential threat, take action to address and defuse it? While different stakeholders use different metrics for tracking and measuring online brand-protection effectiveness, speed to incident response tends to be a common measurement across all parts of the organization. Chief information security officers and intellectual property attorneys, for example, tend to focus on take-down metrics. Their objective is to shut down fraudulent Web sites, end counterfeiting and/or stop IP (intellectual property) infringement activities as quickly as possible, so as to prevent the brand from being impacted negatively.

Consider the challenges most pharmaceutical manufacturers face. Trade secrets and intellectual property are the bread and butter of these companies. The problem is that these tangible assets are virtually impossible to secure under lock and key, and as a result, they occasionally find their way onto the public Internet.

For pharmaceutical manufacturers, the public disclosure of private information can cause irreparable damage. Clinical trial data that leaks to the Internet can put patents at risk, for example, and derail the drug approval process. Similarly, the disclosure of information that is forward-looking in terms of whether or not a drug will be approved can dramatically affect the company’s stock price.

These sensitivities help explain why pharmaceutical manufacturers were quick to recognize the value of social media monitoring solutions and analysis solutions. Part of the value lies in the ability to keep close tabs on the online activity of their own research scientists and other employees (many of whom come from academic environments and are accustomed to sharing their research openly with peers at other learning institutions).

Of course, pharmaceutical manufacturers also need to stay abreast of what information (and misinformation) is rippling across the universe of social media with respect to people taking their drugs. They need to know if, for example, people are questioning the efficacy of a drug or claiming to suffer from unexpected side effects. Tracking consumer-generated content allows them to know when, and how, to adjust their external communications.

Accentuate the Positive

As the largest publicly held personal lines insurance company in the United States, with more than US$37 billion in revenue, Allstate Insurance Company deploys advertising campaigns in which it asks consumers: “Are you in good hands?” Consumers who stumble upon a Web site entitled “Allstate Insurance Sucks” might have reason to answer in the negative.

One of the earliest and most prominent examples of online brand abuse, the Web site provides a platform for disgruntled customers and employees who wish to voice their grievances against the company. Many other major companies, including United Airlines, Verizon and Wal-Mart, are also confronted with complaint Web sites used to disparage their brands. While companies generally face an uphill battle when attempting to take down these Web sites, they may at least have an opportunity to lessen their destructive impact. How? By dominating search engine visibility with positive messaging while working to displace the negative messaging.

Using the keyword “Allstate,” the “Allstate Insurance Sucks” Web site came up as the third result in a Google search as recently as 2007. Today, the “Allstate Insurance Sucks” Web site is nowhere to be found on the first page of search results. Using search engine optimization and other techniques, companies are often able to raise the rankings information that more accurately and positively depicts their brand reputation.

When it comes to search engine results, the first two Web pages, or the first 20 results, are the most important. The goal, therefore, is to move the negative results “beneath the fold” on the second page, to display accurate and positive information in the top 20 results, and to make this happen in a way that is above-board and transparent. In this case, Allstate succeeded in moving the Web site link to the top of the second page of search results, where it stands to do far less reputational damage.

“At Allstate, brand reputation management is viewed on a twofold basis,” says Pablo Azar, vice president of marketing strategy and consumer insights. “First, how do you manage the risk of reputational harm, given all of the things that can happen? Second, how do you continue to evolve and protect your brand reputation going forward even as you try to develop a new strategy?”

One of the people at Allstate who puts a lot of time and energy into this topic is Stacy Sharpe, assistant vice president of corporate communications. In fact, few other areas of the business are of greater concern to her than online brand protection. “We scan the online environment on a very regular basis to gain deep insights into all stakeholder perceptions of Allstate, whether that be consumers, analysts or opinion leaders, and to determine whether any action needs to be taken,” says Sharpe. “We also make sure that anyone, including suppliers and agency owners, who is using our brand [is] using it in a way that reflects our brand in the most positive way possible.”

As for how to deal with online content that poses a threat to Allstate’s brand reputation, Sharpe reiterates the need to accentuate the positive. “We actively promote all of the good things that Allstate is doing, and we try to put most of the attention on that,” she says.

Tools, People and Metrics

When it comes to online monitoring for brand reputation management, why not learn from the experiences of other companies, both inside and outside the industry? In addition to the new Aberdeen report “Brand Reputation Management,” which is currently available for free download, there are several valuable sources of best practices from which practitioners can draw inspiration. These sources include nonprofit organizations like the High Technology Crime Investigation Association (HTCIA).

Companies should consider hiring resources that have “monitoring” as part of their job description. While external vendors like Visible Technologies, BrandProtect, Converseon, Brandwatch, ReputationDefender, Cyveillence and OpSec Security Group can do most of the heavy lifting when it comes to actual technology deployment, and even in terms of analyzing the data to identify and communicate potential threats to the brand, internal resources are nonetheless required to support and enhance the online brand protection initiative on an ongoing basis. Many marketing organizations currently have vice presidents or directors of customer insights, market research, corporate communications, brand compliance and/or other titles under whose purview these initiatives currently fall.

For large enterprises, consider the possibility of creating a position called “director of online brand protection.” The accountabilities would focus solely on the day-to-day analysis and dissemination of insights related to consumer-generated content in the context of brand reputation management — and, importantly, on tracking and measuring outcomes.

Also, companies should implement time-sensitive performance metrics. While most companies understand the value of social media monitoring and analysis in terms of protecting brand reputation, not all of them appreciate the need to put metrics in place to track and measure success around time-sensitivity. The sooner a company is able to gauge a threat to its brand integrity and future profitability, the sooner it should leap into action to resolve the issue at hand, including working to counteract any negative publicity or consumer sentiment that may otherwise spiral out of control.

Being the First to Know

Before the advent of social media, conversations about a brand took place in a living room, on the street or in a coffee shop. Now that conversations have moved online, companies have an unprecedented opportunity to listen in and glean a vast array of actionable insights. As it happens, some of those insights may reveal issues that pose a threat to a company’s brand reputation — or, worse, speak to brand devaluation activities that are already in progress.

As an early warning system, social media monitoring has the capacity to bring any number of current or imminent risks to the brand to light. The challenge, then, is to disseminate and act upon the insights in a time-sensitive fashion so as to mitigate, or at least minimize, the damage to company’s brand reputation.

Companies need to be the first to know about threats to their brand. No chief marketing officer or chief information security officer wants to be asked: “Do you know this is happening out there?” and not be able to respond with, “Yes, we were alerted to that 24 hours ago, we’re on top of it, and here are the steps we’re taking to resolve the problem and to protect our company’s brand reputation and shareholder value.” By proactively monitoring social media for brand devaluation issues, companies can eliminate, or at least mitigate, their impending impact, allowing them to declare: “Because we knew about this long before the story broke, we had a chance to do something about it.”

Jeff Zabin is a research fellow in customer management technologies at the Aberdeen Group.

1 Comment

  • Sorry, Mr. Zabin, but your excellent report appears to have ignored the most important metric of all: It’s called being proactive. Don’t give the disgruntled customer/employee/etc. a reason to complain in the first place.

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