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Brand Warfare Goes Social

I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised—if anything, the surprise is in how long we waited—that organizations are using social media to put pressure on other organizations. Recently, environmental activism group Greenpeace used a YouTube video to drive customer outrage against snack food producer Nestlé for its use of palm oil sourced from dwindling orangutan habitats.

The result was a ton of news coverage (from CNN, CNET, Forbes, BusinessWeek, The Guardian, and many others—thanks, Google), a practical shutdown of Nestlé’s Facebook page due to angry traffic, and what Greenpeace wanted: severance of the Nestlé relationship with Sinar Mas, the oil supplier accused of illegal deforestation.

Now, I loves me some KitKats. I am aware of the horrible toll they inflict on my health and I eat them anyway, though not so often that you have to worry about my imminent demise. I will continue to eat them in the future. But I’m glad that Greenpeace brought the palm oil problem to my attention, so I can watch for it in other foods. And you can be sure I’ll take a hiatus from my KitKat consumption. I would rather do without a yummy snack than condemn a piece of our world to death.

Side note: Jeremiah Owyang of Altimeter Group was on the most recent Brian Lehrer Live to comment on this situation. (The social media aspect, not my fat butt and KitKat addiction.) I can’t find the video, so I’d appreciate it if somebody would link it in the comments.

Is this a good thing? Should the power that has finally come into the hands of the customer be co-opted by large and powerful groups to further their own ends? My opinion is a guarded yes. Greenpeace is the example at hand, and it is not trying to make a profit—it’s trying to increase awareness of the harm we do to the ecology in the name of profit. While the group has had its excesses (the term ecoterrorism has been applied to some of Greenpeace’s activities), it generally acts to expose a situation it finds worrisome, and lets public opinion do the rest.

As with everything else, there’s the potential for abuse. If there’s something we can learn from social media, it’s that stories spread fast and far, much more so than the truth behind the story can catch up. A brand can be destroyed by one person’s efforts—typically a customer with an axe to grind over shoddy merchandise or poor service. Imagine the damage that can be done by a large, well-funded, coordinated group with a much larger axe to grind. If the cause is just and no lies are told, then I’m okay with it. But what if it had been Hershey’s spreading the Nestlé story? Would we be as sanguine about chocolate maker A inflaming consumer outrage against chocolate maker B, gaining market share by levying accusations against its competitor in the guise of social justice? What if the allegations were untrue?

I don’t really care what happens to individual corporations. I care about customers losing their voice as they’re drowned out by louder ones. All I ask is that you evaluate a story before you spread it. That’s just part of the social contract, and it applies to social media just as much as it does to traditional talk.