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Woolworths: The shifting nature of brands

It’s no surprise to me that brand after brand make the same mistakes when responding to online, and especially social media, attacks. From the famous Dell Hell, through the Kryptonite lock fiasco to the more recent Nestle and BP protests. The latest saga was the extremist Christian response via Facebook to the Woolworths’ management decision to no longer stock certain Christian religious magazines in its stores.

The standard corporate reaction is predictable and certain to meet with failure. It’s based on the delusion of brand strategists and corporate management that they are still in control of their brands.

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While Cellular operator, Cell C, felt that they could manipulate the community, Woolworths has reacted like dazzled rabbits caught in the headlights, much like clothing retailer GAP did over its logo change. As a result the poor-selling Christian magazines are going back on the shelf.

So why are brands making these mistakes and what should they do?

  1. A “brand” is simply the feeling consumers have when they think about you or your stuff.
  2. Firms used to be able to exert massive influence over what people thought about their brands, because they controlled most of the information that was available. They could manage the media share of voice, which was equated with share of mind and therefore share of market.
  3. Firms lost control when ordinary people became publishers, when people started trusting their social graph more than they trusted advertising or PR. When the media stopped being merely a source of information but a site of coordination.

With these points in mind, let’s take a look at Woolies. The Woolworths Facebook page ceased being a safe, benign space under the control of the marketing department and became a site of co-ordination for those wanting to pressurise Woolworths to reverse their decision.

Of course, technically, Woolworths has control of its page, but in reality they are powerless to exercise it. The conversation can easily migrate to wherever the crowd wants it to go.

As an analogy, think about the difference between water in a hosepipe and water in the sea. The hosepipe puts you in control of water, you can direct it, you can even turn it off — the sea is impossible to control, but with skill you can learn to work with it.

In a similar way you can’t control the online conversation, but you can work with it if you change your point of departure from being in control to understanding.

Here is what I suggest:

  1. Accept that there is a conversation going on… that people are talking about you. Some good, some bad.
  2. You can ignore the conversation and not participate, but then they won’t stop talking. You just won’t hear, and that would be pretty dumb.
  3. It is far better to give them a place to talk, to invite them into your sitting room.
  4. Let the conversation happen. Let it get heated, accept criticism try to understand what they are saying and why.
  5. Don’t try to dominate the conversation. If it starts going against societal norms by being abusive, racist etc by all means moderate, but never be overbearing.
  6. You can’t please all of the people all of the time — but have enough faith that if you have a good product or service you will have more promoters than detractors.
  7. If the criticism is unjustifiable in many ways, your fans will do a better job of rescuing you than you can yourself.

If I was advising Woolworths I would argue that they reacted too quickly. The company should possibly have let things run for a few more days, while monitoring closely. In that time, the heat would have left the conversation and the cooler heads may have taken over.

As a business, your job is to deliver the best possible customer experience and you have to make business decisions in order to do that. If the space taken by the magazines could be better used by other magazines, then that would have been the right decision.

Steve Jobs famously remarked that Apple never does marketing research — it just produces the best stuff and the best experience possible. As the biggest technology company in the world that seems to have worked pretty well for. Of course it’s not as easy as it sounds, but veering off strategy due to the comments of a vocal group of followers is clearly not the solution either.

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