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Branding and Social Media

Viral Brand Crisis And Strategy

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Viral Brand Crisis And Strategy

On the morning of April 15, 2009, everything looked bright for Domino’s Pizza. The company’s share price had risen overnight, the group’s expansion plan was on track, and the brand was as strong as ever. 

But at 3:32 pm that very afternoon, the first text messages began beeping their arrival on the CEO’s mobile phone. They kept coming – one after the next, after the next. The phone’s inbox maxed out. The voicemail message light was blinking in overdrive, and soon filled to capacity.

Every CEO’s Nightmare

This was fast turning into every CEO’s biggest nightmare – in just eight hours Domino’s Pizza had become a ticking brand bomb. It seemed that two employees in Conover, North Carolina had been larking about in a Domino’s Pizza kitchen. They pelted one another with dough. They stuck it up their noses, and then blew it across uncooked sandwiches.  To add insult to injury, they presumably then served the food to customers.  It was an unsavoury sight, to say the least.  What’s more, they videoed their shenanigans, and loaded the footage onto YouTube for all the world to see.

With the help of Twitter, millions of viewers were drawn to the YouTube clip – knocking Susan Boyle’s unlikely Britain’s Got Talent performance off its perch. It was a disaster. Domino’s Pizza was struck down by a potentially fatal viral blow, the brand was now on everyone’s lips, and the taste was bitter.  A negative viral experience on the internet, on a grand scale, had left Domino’s Pizza seriously wounded.

Instant Branding

If we were looking back to 1980, 1990 or perhaps even 2000, this wouldn’t have happened. Not only were the mechanisms not in place for this kind of spread, but a well-planned PR crisis management strategy would be rolled out within days. But this is 2009 – and there’s no leeway in a crisis scenario. If we’re lucky, all we have is a few hours. This may go some way into explaining why Domino’s Pizza’s 48- hour wait to launch its counter-attack seemed far too late. The damage had already spread across the world and almost immediately it cost the Domino’s Pizza chain millions of dollars. According to Zeta Interactive, a marketing company that measures such things, Domino’s’ approval rating dropped from a share price of 7.36 to 6.65. By the week’s end, the share price had dropped by 9.6 per cent, equivalent to $ 4,073 million.

Welcome to the world of online and instant branding – for better or worse.

When Video Goes Viral

How do some messages become viral while others fail to take hold? And bearing the Domino’s case in mind, what can be done when one of those disastrous, unsolicited videos goes madly viral?

How could Domino’s have avoided the situation? As the old saying goes, where there’s smoke, there’s fire. The job then becomes how to contain the smoke. At first blush, you’d imagine that the offending clip was filmed and uploaded on the very day when all hell broke loose. In all probability that was not the case. Chances are that video was shot weeks before, and it had been up on YouTube for days, and no one at the pizza chain knew about it.

In the days of old-fashioned journalistic practice, the victim (for want of a better word) would have some sort of prior warning of their impending outing. In the new world of media penetration, it seems the onus has shifted, and the victim now needs to pre-empt any potential negative situation.  This is not an impossible task.  In fact, it’s the self-same new media that can rescue you. Google, for example, offers an ‘Alerts’ service, free of charge.  You simply type in your brand name, and Google will ‘Alert’ you whenever your name comes up – be it in a chat room, a bulletin board, a blog or an online newspaper. Had Dominos monitored the situation, they could have bought an extra day or two, allowing them to put out the fire before it began raging.

Perhaps more importantly; how do we explain the imbalance between those marketers that spend hundreds of thousands failing in their quest to ignite a humungous virus, and those that least want this type of publicity yet fall victim to the virus nonetheless?

The Old Status Quo

It wasn’t that long ago when cinemas screened slide-show ads before the main feature.  These were relatively unsophisticated images promoting the local butcher or hairdresser or bakery.  They usually contained a fuzzy photo along with a phone number, and maybe even a fax number.  They somehow relied on you having a handy notepad to scribble on in the dark. It seems a rather odd expectation, don’t you think?

Here we are in the 21st Century running ordinary TV commercials on websites, hoping word of mouth is going to spread them in the same way the unlikely songbird Susan Boyle sprang to fame. Yet the very nature of the content leads these ads into the same trap as those old slide-show ads at the movies. They simply are not suited to the particular channel of media they’re appearing on.

Creating A Successful Viral

So how can we get it right? I’m sitting in GoViral’s headquarters in London. They are the seeding experts behind some of the world’s most successful viral campaigns and count big-name brands like Nissan, HP and adidas among their client list. We are discussing what engages users and turns them in to willing brand advocates for a commercial message. This is somewhat enigmatic since many never get off the ground.  What rules, if any, can be followed to ignite a virus of your own?  Generally, GoViral follows three dicta:

Content For The Web

It is a common misunderstanding that TV advertising can’t be distributed online with excellent results, extending reach and adding interactive opportunities – but the mechanics of distributing such video content is very different from that of a viral campaign. Like its counterpart on TV, ordinary video ads need to be extensively supported by paid media as a user’s engagement will be limited. The real strength of the internet is when brands dare to be different and produce ads that work as content in a social context. Take, as an obvious example, nudity. With the support of The Viral Factory in London, Diesel created a viral video based on a combination of cartoon-like-drawings layered on top of 70s porn movies.

The perfect match of brand choice with a concept representing provocative (and attention-grabbing) values helped to add another edge to Diesel among probably the most hyper critical audience of them all. It’s also been viewed 15m times, according to The Viral Factory.

Another case in point is explosions. Everyone likes a good one, and everyone who saw the Quiksilver explosion on a lake in Copenhagen remembers it well: a surfer threw a bomb into a river in order to ride the subsequent wave.  People share and remember unusual, quirky or amazing things – whether it is people juggling footballs in impossible ways for EA’s FIFA Street or Samsung creating sheep art in Wales. None of these videos would make their way into conventional television advertising, yet the brands behind them dared to stand out and be different and for that they were awarded with a lot of ‘free mileage’.

Authentic Value Match

So this is the catch. In the online world there is a very direct trade-off between user and brand. Launch a traditional ad with all the product and brand info your objectives require and people will watch but rarely help. Launch something different and chances are they will come to your aid, like with the classic Dove ‘real beauty’ video or Quicksilver’s explosion. Quiksilver can get away with it too, because ‘explosive’ is what they do well – it’s a core value match. Many viral videos make spectacular viewing this way, but remember that reaching a smaller targeted audience with a valuable message can be worth just as much to a brand.  There’s no point in echoing another well-worn phrase – the operation was successful but the patient died!

Distribution Requires Planning And Technology

As Mads Holmen from GoViral says, ‘distributing commercial or viral videos requires much more than simply uploading them to YouTube – 90,000 people are doing that every single day. For advertisers working strategically with viral marketing it’s all about accountability and the right approach. Distributing online video successfully requires the ability to engage a core audience in a timely fashion and doing this on a large scale – by reaching out to hundreds of blogs, communities and contextual websites. Because these environments are respected and listened to among peers, they have the influence and power needed to kick-start a campaign.’

Achieving the right distribution for your video requires a mix of solid media planning and the application of technology as the facilitator that makes it possible. From my own world I could say it’s like publishing a book. Writing it is only the beginning. How the book goes out into the world will be what defines it as a success or a failure. The essence of a book’s true success comes down to how well you distribute the book to opinion leaders. If you manage to get the book in the hands of the world’s 100 most influential people there’s a great chance they’ll tell their friends – and thus hit another 1000 – and another 10,000. In publishing, this concept is called loudmouths – and is all about sending review copies to the chosen few, hoping to create a true snowball effect.

To go back to the beginning of the story, imagine if the wayward Domino’s Pizza video had carried a positive message for the brand. If the provocative content had been maintained, albeit with a positive spin on the message and the power of the active social media landscape instead had worked in favor of Dominos – the effect would have been huge. Then add professional distribution behind the message and it could have reached all corners of the web, creating a lasting presence and impact for the brand. In the same way that online video has become a ticking time bomb for brands that don’t attend to the dialogue, it can also be used to signal positive change to a company’s marketing profile. Such change is occurring every day on the user side as a rapidly growing audience choose to watch their video content online. It’s essential that you get a serious grip around what your time bomb contains and how to get it out there.

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