Bracing For The New Era Of Brand Hijacking
Apple’s stand-off with the FBI refocuses the dilemma of what to do when someone has used your product in a way that was never intended. What should brands do to influence or change how their products are used?
This dilemma isn’t new of course. People have been choosing to use brands in ways that give brand managers palpitations for years. Some of those actions, such as the commandeering of Doc Martens by the punk movement, shift the brand itself. Others, like the debate over the extent to which Twitter should enable terrorist groups to propagate and celebrate their hate, continue to rage. In fact, the parallels between the Apple/FBI stand-off and those of the Twitter dilemma, point to an issue that has only increased with digitalization and of course the ubiquitous adoption of technology.
Some will argue that brands have not had control over consumers for some time and that they are deluding themselves if they think they have. In a TED talk in 2012, Tim Leberecht argued that companies can go with this loss of control or they can seek to use process to limit the possibilities. “They can worry about how much openness is good for them, and what needs to stay closed. Or they can simply smile, and remain open to all possibilities.”
Indeed, some will say brands have a responsibility to invite the customer in and embrace open source. In “A Brand Manager’s Guide to Losing Control”, Jill Avery argues that social media has wrested control from the clutches of brand owners and that the best defense that brands can adopt is to encourage a connected group of very passionate supporters who advocate for the brand in this dynamic environment. She identifies four concurrent trends that brand managers will need to negotiate with: the rise of virtual communities in the age of the social collective; the push for truth in the age of transparency; the power of review in the age of criticism; and the use of humor and satire in the age of parody. The broad lesson here is that brand management and control are not synonyms and that brand managers will need to work more closely with other disciplines in their organizations and adapt quickly to situations that are increasingly outside their control and happening in real time.
But, to revert to Leberecht, he also makes the great point that brands are not free to simply use consumer assertion as a prompt to abdicate their responsibilities: “For the true selves of companies to come through, openness is paramount, but radical openness is not a solution, because when everything is open, nothing is open.”
Some will say that being open to consumer decisions and to the serendipity that comes with allowing consumers to exercise their own judgment is good in certain circumstances. Greg Thomas wrote a very good piece some years back in which he argued that having your brand hijacked can work for or against the brand depending on how the brand is consumed and where consumers want to take it. Drawing on examples like Corona beer, which was just another Mexican beer until it was discovered by surfers, paired with lime, and quickly associated with escape, Thomas argues that brands need to temper their reaction to what the hijack delivers and to be realistic about how much influence they are going to have going forward (or indeed if the brand is best left to its new-found associations).
If consumers take your brand upmarket he says, go with it. If they open your brand to new segments, for the most part encourage them to do so. But “weight the benefits of supporting the new segment with impact on your original target segments [and] keep in mind that you do not totally control the brand…your potential for dissuading a new segment from desiring your brand could be as hard as keeping moths away from a bright light at night.”
What Avery’s model doesn’t allow for is the emergence of social media as a weapon of war and what that means for brands when they find their products being used to disseminate harm. Some will say companies have a moral obligation when their brand is being misused in such circumstances to prevent it being used in that way going forward. This is another iteration of the privacy versus public good debate. It is particularly pertinent for technology brands of course because awareness of privacy, data scrapping, identity theft and cyber insecurity is now much higher than it has been. On the one hand consumers have never been so dependent on technology to go about their lives, on the other they shudder to think about what could be revealed about them personally if their transactions were to be unlocked.
Apple’s response to the FBI request for access has of course been to argue that the access that the Government seeks is too high a price to pay and that the risks and costs of doing so outweigh the benefits. In the light of consumer sensitivities, that makes complete sense, at least from the brand’s point of view. It would do the Apple brand a great deal of damage if they were seen to ‘cave’ to Government at the perceived expense of users. So this is an argument that is about much more than access. At its core, this is a debate over responsibilities and accountabilities, how those are negotiated between competing stakeholders and who has the greatest rights.
Many more brands will need to form opinions on this going forward I believe. While brand hijacking itself is far from new, and losing control means so many things in so many different circumstances, both good and bad, ultimately brands will need to set out guidelines that encourage them to go with something that has happened, slow it down, discourage it or actively look to combat it. No-one is suggesting for example that brands should simply turn a blind eye to counterfeit or allow their sponsorships to be compromised by opportunists. There is, and will always be, a place for control. But, to Avery’s point, brands will also operate in environments that are less tolerant of stringency, where expectations to free access are only increasing and where consumers see themselves as the deciders.
The stakes are high. There are real differentiation, innovation and trust-building opportunities for those that get this right; and adverse reactions, some potentially long-lasting and widespread, for those that don’t.
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