“Over the last 18 months we’ve invested heavily in social media”, says Nik Pearson, manager of media relations for Toyota and Lexus in the UK. “We see it as a strong, cost-effective method for conversing directly with the customer.”
Toyota listens for mentions of its brand or vehicles in online conversations, and also interacts with customers. “There are people sitting here waiting for those conversations,” says Pearson, adding that “if they have a question, we get the answer directly from the person responsible in the business.”
Jez Frampton, Global CEO of brand value agency Interbrand, says social media marketing is now critically important. “There is lots of evidence which shows that you’re more likely to be persuaded into an opinion when you’re discussing it with a friend or someone who is perceived to be independent. People talk about what cars they are going to buy, what food they are going to eat, shows they’ve seen, and they trust the opinions of those they know rather than the words of an advertiser or a journalist. What used to be word of mouth has become the chatter of social media. This is massively influential.”
What people talk about is hard to control though. What can businesses do to protect and enhance brand reputation in these public conversations?
Frampton says there are three segments to brand communication today.
“Think of two overlapping circles, one of which is the world of the business and the other one the world of the customer or the consumer. One segment the business can clearly control, which is its own communications, press releases, advertising, what they say at events and so on. Then at the other side is an area which is completely under the control of the customer which is the world of blogs, social media and the like. There is a section in the middle of those two circles where effectively company and customer can work together. The successful company today has to work across those three areas, and you have to accept that in some parts of the conversation you are not invited.”
Brands that try to influence the conversation by posing as customers play a dangerous game, says Frampton. “If you try and pretend to be one of them you get found out pretty quickly. The backlash to doing that is likely to be much bigger than if you hadn’t got involved in the first place and had just done a good job listening,” he says.
Doling out free gadgets or holidays to bloggers in the expectation of good reviews can also backfire. “People who are perceived to be super users or opinion leaders in market places have to be careful to protect their reputation, their brand, within the blogosphere. It’s not in the interests of people to take freebies and write good reviews, because if the reviews prove to be not accurate than they lose their following.”
The biggest test of a company’s effectiveness in social media is at moments of crisis. Examples include retailers found to be selling undeclared horse meat in beef products in January 2013, BP’s involvement in the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010, and the tragedy in April when a sub-standard clothing factory collapsed in Bangladesh claiming over a thousand lives. Companies including Primark, Matalan and Bonmarché were found to supply clothes made there. At such times, “you cannot avoid getting involved in the discussion,” says Frampton. “You have to be clear and honest about your involvement, because if you aren’t you get found out quickly. Then what you need to do is be very clear about what your point of view is, what you’re going to do about it and how you’re going to help. That has to be connected back to your vision of the company and your brand.”
It is no use distancing yourself by blaming sub-contractors, he says. “Our contract both moral, spiritual and real is with the company that you’re buying from. So by saying this isn’t us, it’s someone else, nobody is fooled by that any more, and it makes it look like you have no control over your own business.”
The responsibility for action in a crisis runs across the whole business, including the CEO to show leadership, social media specialists to engage with social groups, and corporate communications to talk to the media. Frampton suggests “cross-business working parties who are in a position to handle crises as they come along”.
What can Toyota do when there is a panic about a safety issue, such as there was in 2009-11 when the company had to recall some of its vehicles after reports of unintended acceleration. “All manufacturers have recalls,” Pearson reminds us, “it’s a fairly common occurrence. What we’ve started to see in social media is that we can actually play out messages from our customers saying it’s great that Toyota are on the front foot about this and fixing it right first time. We can get instantaneous feedback about the consumer’s feelings about this, it’s not just reliant on what the mainstream media are saying.”
Authenticity is key, says Pearson, which is why you cannot successfully outsource social media interaction to an agency. “If we’d approached it through outsourced agency work, or had some kind of automated system, it wouldn’t be as authentic and that’s the central concept behind good social media.”
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