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BW Businessworld

Case Study: Here A Tweet, There A Tweet

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Kailash Singh was dismayed. he was walking around the 9,000-sq. feet ‘Easily Elegant' (a.k.a. E-sqd), along with Lopa Mehta, its brand guardian. E-sqd was a lifestyle store — clothes, linen, household accessories and elegant living — with 18 other outlets.

Kailash was an interactive brand strategist. On a recent holiday to California where business associates asked to see Indian lifestyle goods, he had readily opened the store's website and was shocked that they did not sell online. And that was one of the reasons he had called on Lopa Mehta.

Lopa: The online sales module  is too minuscule a business proposition. It is hard to keep online shoppers' interest levels up. I have spent a lot of time on this, Kailash. The effort that goes into generating a sale of Rs 6 lakh a month online, could generate four times as much sales per month in our store. We have accepted that being online is irrelevant for E-sqd.

Kailash: Online presence is about much more than sales, Lopa. There is more to your brand which gets communicated, known, felt, understood, perceived… when you stay open and available and visible to the consumer. It's a completely new world now; just as today we want our product to be known globally... we want to also follow the global Indian customer wherever he goes! How about Twitter? Don't you want to keep your equity salient in his mind?

Lopa: I get your point, but the ones who have something to say, write to us. Anyway, I don't have the fursat for another social networking site. It's intrusive, inquisitive, promotes pointless interest in pointless things. You know each social site now needs a new manager, besides! 

Yet, later Lopa mentioned it to CEO Dwij Nanda. "It seems that not being on Facebook is as backward as not using a deodorant!" Nanda shook his head and said, "Correct! So have we gone and made a fashion statement by not being on Facebook? So will consumers stop consuming? Wouldn't we rather have them in a 3-D store than speculate in 2-D? Let's not get into all this. We will all be immensely distracted. From what I see, whether you get there or not, those chaps will cause a buzz around you. That is their business. And we have to remain focussed on ours.

Sankalp Handa (merchandising manager): It may be a good idea to get there to construct, like build new segments, cater to new tastes, research with new groups... engage with them, talk to them... establish presence…
Nayana Dhir (research): Whether or not we are on Twitter or elsewhere, those who have an opinion will opine. It is the nature of these media. The social space is OK to hang out in socially, to inquire ‘hey, wassup?'; but is this relevant data? No. Emphatic ‘No'. Social media is mere rabble rouser, that's all.

As far as I see, data collection has to be organised and done under a formal environment. In a noisy place, you get noise; you may imagine you are sifting and getting to the heart of the data, but you aren't. Conventional, old fashioned MR (market reasearch) is what works. The most relevant research data for marketing is one that is done in an unaffected environment, where people are not in performance mode, where they have normal, average stimuli. Does the social media proffer that? I don't think so.

Reshaad Nariman (youngest of the team): It will be sometime before the new Net behaviours settle into a pattern. Do recall a brand mishap that happened a year ago, in November 2008. McNeil's Motrin story gives an insight into a different world; it shows us that a huge population is being ‘itself' as it populates a faceless, smell-less space, where introductions and familiarity is no big deal, where people exist on the go. What is amazing is that it works for them!

[The Motrin-Twitter story: Motrin is a pain killer from McNeil Consumer Healthcare. A campaign in October 2008 targeted ‘babywearing' moms (mothers who wear the baby on their person as against putting the baby in a pram) and, at some stage, the copy referred to such moms as ‘official moms' and went on to use a sentence structure that led young moms to feel that McNeil was saying that babies are an accessory. The moms' annoyance gained terrific momentum on Twitter, so much so that McNeil's vice-president consumer business, Kathy Widmer apologised on Twitter and withdrew the ad..]

Arjun Das (marketing): A thing works if it is granted space. Take a parallel. In our eight-hour day, we had just one lunch break. Before and after, nobody eats. Recently, we introduced a tea break. Now many people eat during this break, not necessarily because they are hungry. The canteen is also stocking Haldiram sachets. See what is going on? If you create the opportunity, there will be opinions, arguments, protests, morchas, hartals, anything!

On the Net, you have a million people dying to be heard, to be seen, to make a difference, to express, to be appreciated, to shout. These are people who don't even know each other.

Now, take the Motrin situation in a supermarket — a scenario of no internet. Three women having seen the ad are tut-tutting ‘is baby an accessory?' Three other women pass by wheeling baby prams. Do they stop and say, ‘Did you mention the Motrin ad?' No! They walk on, even though the first three women are in the same segment, shop at the same supermarket and are in the same spot at the same time. Yet, no contact or opinion trading.

Reshaad: Okay, here is another scenario. Move out of the supermarket to a wedding of Bunty and Babli in Golf Links, with 5,000 invitees. Twenty five friends of Bunty make a beeline for dinner. They comment ‘this palak paneer is weird…'; two of Babli's friends standing nearby hear that and say, ‘we thought so too! Try the dum aloo, it is divine'. So what are we now seeing? People are getting sociable even if they don't know each other, but they are in the same setting. Yes, people want to talk, be heard, opine, blah. All they need is a fine thread of commonality connecting them, as in this case, a wedding to which both have been invited. As in Twitter, where they are all co-members.

The point is earlier brands were marketing in a space where the consumer was kept in mute mode; today, the brand is placed in a space where consumers are talking. Until now, getting a feedback through to a brand manager was tedious, but not any more! As for the brand owner, if he has the sense to listen and correct, he has all these people with him, if not, not!

Nanda: See, we cannot be present everywhere. I agree with Lopa, we will then have to hire a Facebook manager, a Twitter manager, an internet manager to whom they will all have dotted line reporting… insane! Where all can we be?

Reshaad: Wherever your consumer is or could be! See, it's like a virus that spreads across the Net; and it cannot be controlled — only managed by participating in it. Examine Motrin's path: the ad was on its Web pages for a long time. Then a blogger picked it up and made confetti of it. The shreds then flew and reached Twitter, then a tweeting blogger compiled the tweets and made a video for YouTube, and finally mainstream New York Times, Wall Street Journal all picked it up. See? The Net is thus a great viral ground. The blaze spreads.

Nanda: Actually, there is a whole new psychology at play, which is why I am not Net-happy. It is not easy to simplify it like this. There are multiple skits being played out, all at the same time, each with a completely unique perspective. For example, the first salvo may have been the most decisive. It came from a blogger mother who had 1,800 followers on Twitter. So she swings the polls. She began by saying stuff like ‘I am outraged'. Now close your eyes and visualise 1,800 women standing on a podium and chanting ‘I am outraged'; What do you get? Panic.

 Other women stop and look. ‘Hey, she is outraged, what happened? Here is something! We must find out, maybe we don't know...' The next missile came from another lady blogger who ran a kids clothing store. She put together the tweets from offended moms and developed a video for YouTube. Her video got 21,000 views! Is 21,000 anything? No! But, there is g-r-e-a-t curiosity value behind the drama. You see one reaction today. You will come running back in an hour to see what someone else said… soon you are drowning in a foamy froth!

Reshaad: I agree with you. Some blogger with some following is making angry sounds does not count for anything! But when you are linked to other bloggers and they all carry links to your blog on their pages and if they too made growling sounds, you have a bigger chorus. Don't you see, it is a society of people all together!

Sankalp: My question is, why was this much enough to rattle McNeil's Kathy Widmer? She runs a business, she manages a serious brand, is a tough, well-heeled marketer… then what happened? She went on Twitter and apologised and promised to withdraw it. You say 4,000 or 5,000 followers is to be seen as a small blimp, a village march. Then was Widmer overreacting?

Nayana: Yes! But what caused that overreaction? Suddenly you are faced with angry voices. Until now, when a consumer got angry, you got a monotone letter, an email at best. But a crowd? 5,000 consumers tweeting for your blood the minute you log on? Never before! When you see tweets from bloggers who carry four-digit followerships, your first reaction is, "Oh my God! If here and now I am seeing 4,200, how many am I not seeing?!

Arjun: Stop, stop, stop. Recall her words on Twitter: "We have heard you… please accept our sincere apology." Not just apologetic as in ‘The management regrets the inconvenience caused', but deep and desperate. In that I read panic.

Nayana: Exactly! So, was it a fear of the unknown social media, its capability, its potential to cause damage, the possible ripple effect? Please understand, what freaks you is seeing those followerships in numbers and imagining them raising hands to vote against you.

TV too clocks followers through TRPs. But what is this TRP? Is it a measure of people who like and dislike your show? No! It is a measure of how many people had their TV sets on when this show/ad was being aired. Did they watch it? Did they like it? Did they hate it? No answers! TRP ‘implies' or assumes that ‘TV set is on = People watching shows'. But here the vote is clear and vocal. And that is unnerving.

Lopa: So those 15,000 tweets were correct? 15,000 people flicked off a possibly Rs 35-lakh ad? 21,000 watched the YouTube video, but did they decry the ad? They watched. And they opined. But, don't you validate their opinions first? Are we saying 5,000 or 10,000 tweets can topple an ad? Is this a reality show? What about the creative, copy and the client service people who have built this brand, its success, its image?

Sankalp: Wait, go beyond the surface noise. Success, image, staying power — all that gets redefined every time a screaming audience decides to topple you. Your success is defined by your reaction to a screaming audience!

Lopa: That is the point. In my humble opinion, Kathy Widmer directed her success by withdrawing that ad. She declared the ad was a failure because it failed with 20,000 or 30,000 tweeting people. The media who wrote about Motrin, actually wrote about a hysteria on Twitter. They were not writing about Motrin the brand being bad, failure, etc. Importantly, did Widmer know whether those tweeters were Motrin users? If they were not, did they have any context complaining? Mind you, it was not offensive copy. Then why did she react?

Reshaad: Don't you see, that is the strength of the social media! And such a medium is today's reality — the society of bloggers, YouTubers, Tweeters, etc. also hold the mike. They can snatch the mike from you if they don't like your script, and start speaking their's!

Nayana: Take the example of our own Shashi Tharoor. The print media painted him into a corner based on what the Congress said. But did you check the tweeters? They were in his favour. Over the weeks, Tharoor has become a cult figure and must change his name to Shashi Twitter. Someone even ran a tiny survey on Twitter:
a. Do you think of Dr Tharoor's reference of "cattle class" and "holy cow" as a derogatory statement towards common man? 71 per cent said ‘No'.
b. Do you think media, especially the visual media, over-reacted? 75 per cent said ‘Yes'.
c. Do you want to see more politicians join social networking/microblogging sites like Twitter, Facebook, etc.? 84 per cent said ‘Yes'.
But the crowning glory came from one anonymous who said: "These are TRP games.  The media and vested interests are making puppets of all of us and we are sadly behaving like a herd of cattle." That, I think, sums up the Motrin-Twitter episode!

Nanda: Okay, hang on guys. What would have happened if McNeil had not pulled the ad off the air, when it did?

Sankalp: You mean, was that reaction from Widmer based on logic or calculations? If you take Motrin's market size, TA, segments, etc., what percentage of Motrin users did those angry moms represent? Are the opinions of these tweeting moms dependable? Could they have been able to damage the brand? Perform the arithmetic please! Suppose 2,000 tweets decry a soap brand; will it really break the brand following? Suppose its total market is one million users. How many of these are on Twitter? Say 5,000. How many of these 5,000 base their brand preferences on Tweets?

Social media chatter has a shelf life. It is fanned and fuelled the first five days, then new things catch their fancy. Taking any decisions during these five days can be premature.

Reshaad: Nonsense! You cannot believe that after five days, the news dies? Noooo! Take the Motrin situation. Within the week, the ad was generating 300 tweets per hour! Once it made it to ‘Trending Topics' on Twitter, the original bloggers took their stories to newspapers which had to perform the funeral services.

And mind you, on Twitter the impact is more vivid and deep because you are actually getting to read the unedited anger, the vicious glee as they rubbish the brand… In contrast, conventional brand advertising, the one that talks for the brand, is less effusive, see, which is why negative advertising works stronger.

Lopa: Wait Reshaad. Truth is, finally when they examined it, it was found only 35 per cent of the tweets were in fact negative! That is what makes this whole thing very reactive. There is something to what Sankalp said: taking decisions based on tweet calls is an insult to your brand and your brand manager. But then I also believe the brand manager has axed his feet by not stomping down hard enough and asking to validate feedback before withdrawing the ad.

Nanda: But say, were they able to dialogue with these mothers and find out what was so offensive about the ad? It's finally McNeil baba… those guys are careful, decent marketers. It's as if one of our focus groups goes ballistic, starts calling us names and we withdraw the product!

Sankalp (laughing mirthfully): Yes, it looks like that! Except what makes this bothersome is that the focus group also wielded a mike, so that many many people heard them. I feel somewhere this sort of thing loses objectivity and takes on a morcha kind of appeal, which is what makes this medium less about marketing and more about emotional table thumping.

Nanda: So how long was it between the time they began to tweet till they pulled off?

Reshaad: 4-5 days, less, if at all. But the funny thing is, once the ad was pulled off, a new set of people began a new song, ‘Oh, but McNeil should not have reacted like this!' Like one post on YouTube said, "This is hilarious and so is the outrage. A lot of people actually did not mind the ad which really meant McNeil was overreacting to a bunch of overreacting moms."

Lopa: But coming back to where we began today — should we be on social media or not? I was looking at all this on the Net, and I did a simple search on Motrin and Twitter as my search words. What I saw blew my whole resistance to this social media carnival. On Twitter, the same host who hosted the hysteric dance and helped pull down the ad comprised people who were all posting messages that said, "oh take a Motrin"; "nothing like a Motrin"; "you need some Motrin! It always gets me together :-)"; "Motrin targets your pain the same way a dog targets your leg"; "oh yea, I like Advil but when I have lil' pains and headaches, Motrin is what you take when it starts bangin!"
Didn't Widmer see what a presence and following the brand had? Why didn't she analyse the sentiments before pulling off? I do think Motrin has a great thing going on Twitter; and with all that following I would have started a dialogue with those moms — not pull the shutters down on the ad! Can you imagine having E-sqd talked about like that? So…

Nanda: Are you saying we should? I am very iffy… would be valuable to call Ms Widmer and find out what she spent on damage control. I'd rather not be talked about than be talked about and then pay a PR company to put me back on the pop charts.  

Reshaad: Let me leave this thought with you:  marketing bloggers were of the view that Motrin's ad agency had no idea about Twitter or the online fracas until it was pointed out to them! I don't know how true that is, but if it is, we don't want to look like them!

Classroom/Syndicate Discussion
How do you identify your target audience in cyberspace? Can a brand be handed over to a mob?

casestudymeera at gmail at com