Online Reputation Management: The Fireworks that Can Burn

Online Reputation Management (ORM) is generally an extension of public relations which entails the maintenance of a brand’s online presence through social monitoring and listening.

Reputation is like Rome. It is never built in a day. But unfortunately, the power and ferocity of online voices are so ruthless that they can demolish this Rome within minutes. We have all seen how much damage trolls can do – irrespective of the size of the issue or the reality of the situation they are attacking. We have also seen how contagious such damage can be. If the online medium has given brands a big armoury of ways to build attractive images, it has also left open a lot of chinks. Yes, you can converse with your customers, you can gather instant feedback, you can create excitement, you can generate campaign/product buzz – but you also run into many rough spots.

The last year was a case study in itself. From the Black Lives movement to the angst against brands selling fair complexion, we have seen umpteen examples of how brands cannot stay away from what the customers think and talk about- not anymore.

Because the truth is that one individual tweet or post can take just a few clicks before it goes viral. That makes today’s brands extra cognizant of the need to respond to reputation attacks and criticisms. Because from gender equality to body-shaming to racism to patriotism – anything and everything can rub the feathers of public sentiment the wrong way.

Take the case of an activist raising a voice against Myntra’s offensive-looking logo, where memes and tweets started bringing attention not just to Myntra’s image but also to its parent companies Flipkart and Walmart.

Or the case of a Pepsi ad trying to piggyback on the Black Lives movement when supermodel Kendall Jenner held a Pepsi can and entered a protest. In the ad, she got a friendly nod from the cop just because she was carrying this can. The ad got YouTube onslaught just minutes after it went live.

Or the poorly-executed International Women’s Day campaign of Burger King that wanted to encourage more female chefs. But its first tweet from Burger King UK that read “women belong in the kitchen” immediately got a flurry of social media criticism. And understandably so.

Mattress companies are no different than smartphones or fashion brands. What will you do if a customer tweets about a mattress that catches fire, about a bad product design or a brand that does not stand up for people with certain health needs or does not include the other gender in its ads?

Will you sit back, hoping that the dust will settle soon? Will you take out swords and fight? Will you hire a crisis manager?

The answer would vary but the point is that you should start thinking about these questions way before the need emerges.

The Power- and Flip Side – of Online Voices

Dr Renuka Kamath, Professor of Marketing, S.P. Jain Institute of Management & Research underlines the gravity of online reputation these days. “It is really high. It matters a lot, especially if the brand’s TG shops are mostly online. If TG’s engagement with social media is high, then brands have to manage their digital footprint extremely ‘carefully’. I use the term ‘carefully’ since digital presence has to be managed. While it shows a comparatively low cost and high reach, it has a flip side too. Overdoing it can lead to fatigue and any bad rating or comment can go viral in a jiffy.”

In a country with increasing internet penetration, online reputation holds the key for all the brands, reminds Neha Chandra, a PR Professional with ten years of work experience across varied sectors like Technology (both consumer and enterprise), Corporate, Startups, Marketing, Telecom, New Age Businesses, Entertainment.

There is no denying that digital consumerism has come a long way and has evolved way beyond expectations given the pandemic, reasons Shweta Sayankar, a PR veteran who has worked on various verticals from lifestyle, and technology to automotive in India and the Middle East. “It matured by leaps and bounds as the consumer became more cautious and smart about their spending. Having said that, it proves to be a boon to brands across sectors as they could reach their consumers directly. Even start-ups and smaller brands could reap its benefits.”

In the Deloitte 2020 Marketing Trends Report, it is clear that many brands and marketers have recognised that to keep up with the competition, they need to evolve their approach. It has been stressed that brands need to create a dynamic two-way engagement across all stages of the consumer journey and the product life cycle. This is where the customer participants can also become brand ambassadors, influencers, advocates, collaborators and even innovators. The Report highlights the significance of Virtual truthing (engaging consumers quickly and effectively to gain insights about emerging products and services in near real-time), communities (like Reddit groups, and brand loyalists with superfan pages)

For mattress players, there is an exciting example of Made Unboxed, a UK furniture retailer in the UK, that engages its customers through a dedicated social platform—Instagram. Here followers can upload personal photos of how they integrated Made Unboxed furniture into personal spaces. Others can like or offer inputs on these décor photos. The customers are not just fans here, but also service providers, advisors, trouble-shooters and educators.

For mattress players, there is an exciting example of Made Unboxed, a UK furniture retailer in the UK, that engages its customers through a dedicated social platform—Instagram. Here followers can upload personal photos of how they integrated Made Unboxed furniture into personal spaces. Others can like or offer inputs on these décor photos. The customers are not just fans here, but also service providers, advisors, trouble-shooters and educators.

Some brands are also using co-creation, where they build customer participation directly into the product development lifecycle or crowdfunding approaches, prototyping and collaborative platforms like Mindsumo. This helps to understand and integrate customer insights, voice and influence into different product design and development stages – as Deloitte highlights.

Interbrand’s latest report gives a peek into the brands that shone and the brands that lost their sheen in the last 12 months. It also talks of how outrage has sparked movements that are driving radical change. This is felt on existential issues such as diversity, equity, inclusion and climate change.

The power of social media is raising crucial questions. Accelerated by exponential transformation and immediate propagation, radical change – ideas, movements, technologies, growth, habits – is simply happening at a speed and scale never seen before. As a result, what is relevant to us changes instantly and dramatically, and in ways that even the most forward-looking organisations can only partly predict or influence. People’s expectations have never been more unstable and unforeseeable.’ Tells the report in its interpretation of possibilities.

This is the right way to go, especially if you are talking to and catering to new-age customers in some way. Insights from Luxe Analytics point out that Millennials will be the crucial luxury driver in India.

This generation will have a lot of discretionary spending and also high expectations from brands that can align luxury to reflect their individuality and meaningfulness instead of just a status symbol.

Also, by 2030, India would touch 370 million Gen Z consumers between the ages of 10-25 and hence, going digital is an imperative and not a menu item. Plus, the value of online reviews and social media will rise even further as we see the inclination change from ownership to sharing economy in a lot of areas. PwC estimates have shown that the rental market will reach $335 billion by 2025 globally with India’s share at $35 billion. That means that a mattress brand cannot discount the decibels and speed of the online world around them. These brands should embrace it and walk in rhythm with it. How?

Ride the Beast. Do not run from it

There is a nimbleness required by brands that in the past wasn’t a critical demand, recommends Dr Renuka Kamath, Professor of Marketing, S.P. Jain Institute of Management & Research.

“Bigger and well-established brands have more at stake and are risk-prone. Smaller brands have less at stake and are nimble. Consumers can be very hard and demanding from an established brand. So it is more incumbent on the bigger brands to be more responsible and agile since they certainly have more to lose.” says Dr Kamath.

Harish Bijoor Brand-Guru & Founder, Harish Bijoor Consults Inc. affirms that online reputation is very important. “However this is a cluttered space. Rising above the clutter costs a humongous amount of money, as well as a large dollop of creativity.”

Well, the power of online ire is quite formidable. That explains why Myntra took swift action and changed its logo which was appearing as disrespectful to women according to some people. Or why KFC took the humorous route and owned up with a witty apology.

The brand ran some messages explaining, and owning, the goof-up of short restaurant supplies and ran the image of an empty KFC bucket that spelt ‘FCK’. That’s some apology.

Nike did something similar when it faced online ire with #Justburnit and #BoycottNike attacks. It issued an ad with instructions on how to burn something safely. It was tagged with the line ‘Just do it safely’. It is a tough call to make – whether to react or not. The last few months have brought brickbats to brands and celebrities who chose to say silent on burning issues. Either way, one’s response should be consistent and taken with a strategic eye.

Sometimes the no-engagement approach may work too. But if a brand can add speed and clarity to its responses, it can still mitigate the reputation that bleeds after an online zombie attack. That’s why brands are spending so much on influencers, digitally-niche campaigns and on social media management these days.

Whatever you do – whether you speak up or dial down or stay shut up – everything will mean something. You will have to decide what – else the online world will derive that meaning for you.

Incidentally, the Interbrand report also adds that with an aggregate value of over 2 trillion dollars, brands are now a force of macroeconomic magnitude and, influence. That explains why their policies and actions have a far-reaching impact. So we need the world’s most influential brands to lead from the future, setting a worthy purpose and a powerful ambition beyond turbulence and chaos.

“At times of crisis, brave leaders don’t just commit to a worthy purpose; they inspire others to join them on a shared journey. Brands that thrive in an anxious world foster dialogue, invite cooperation and create a following. They do this through iconic moves that capture the imagination and solve unmet needs, as well as small acts that show vulnerability, gratitude and empathy. Encapsulating and anticipating the zeitgeist, great brands lift us from indifference and make our choices meaningful. They count us as constituents, not just consumers. They become anchor points at times of volatility, sparking desire, delivering utility and building trust.” Interbrand’s experts translate the writing on the wall very well.

So mattress brands should capture the weight and speed of the online winds in a way that that it helps them move forward. It would need a prudent mix of digital strategy, resources, creative messages, influencers, smart advocacy and the ability to pre-empt mistakes before they blow out of proportion.

Rome cannot be rebuilt in a day, but every brick counts. Whether it is coming towards you, or whether you use it on the wall.

ISPF is an industry body which promotes importance of sleep and role of mattress for a Indian consumers. ISPF plays very important role in connecting Indian bedding industry ecosystem. ISPF also acts as bridge between India and international players.