How to Defeat Brand Insurgents

How to Defeat Brand Insurgents

The video of the Comcast technician asleep while on hold to his company’s technical support. The numerous online forums about Dell’s shoddy customer service. The broken screens on Apple’s Nano and poor battery life on early generations of iPod. The tax return errors of H&R Block. Wal-Mart’s labor policies.

What do these PR disasters have in common? Brand insurgents. Like the U.S. military, traditional brands are unmatched in a classic Coke-vs.-Pepsi war. The reams of market research, “shock-and-awe” advertising, distribution control and economies-of-scale give traditional brands the scale to ignore unhappy customers. How many complaint letters have been written in vain? How many articles on customer service sound as if they have been cut-and-pasted?

But just as US forces have been bedeviled by Iraqi and Afghan hit-and-run fighters, many large brands have been hit by media-savvy, driven and passionate insurgents willing to engage in no-holds-barred attacks. These brand insurgents combine digital media and an understanding of what drives news to escalate a single complaint into a worldwide firestorm. A fascinating article in The New Yorker that examines the new military thinking on insurgency quotes an expert on the new battlefield realities: “This ain’t your granddaddy’s counterinsurgency.” Just as the military is coming out with new ideas to fight insurgents, brand guardians must develop new strategies to fight their own insurgents. Stale tactics like “positioning” from your granddaddy’s marketing battles just can’t cut it in this new environment.

The new ideas are encapsulated in an updated CounterInsurgency (aka COIN) manual produced by the US Army and Marine Corps. (Unbelievably, this manual had not been updated in more than 20 years – or about the time that “positioning” first emerged as a theory.) The introduction to the COIN manual sums up the current challenge to brands well: “Effective insurgents rapidly adapt to changing circumstances. They cleverly use the tools of the global information revolution to magnify the effects of their actions…” This manual, and the strategic thinking behind it it, offers guidance to those brands which also face insurgents.

The most fascinating insight – and the one that applies most to branding – is that insurgencies are based less on ideology and more on social networks. People are largely driven to fight a greater power not because of a fundamental belief but because of their family, friends and associates. One study of 172 alienated Muslims who became radicals found that the common element among all them was not poverty or religious belief but the activities and beliefs of their peers.

Interestingly, these networks are held together by what may be called “anti-brand stories.” The power of stories in branding is well-known. The classic anti-brand story concerns Procter & Gamble, whose logo supposedly symbolizes the “mark of the beast” in Revelations and who supposedly uses its profits to support the Church of Satan.

The other interesting insight emerging from the new approach to insurgency is that, despite relationships among insurgents and a common story, insurgents are not a monolithic force. For example, Iraq’s insurgents range from hard-core criminals to Sunnis to Shiites to nationalists to anarchists, united only by a common enemy. Likewise, many who attack brands also share little in common except their tactics.

The new brand environment is no place for old tactics: “The side that
learns faster and adapts more rapidly – the better learning
organization – usually wins,” says the new COIN manual. So what lessons does the military’s COIN strategy, and the way it’s being implemented in Iraq and Afghanistan, hold for brands facing their own insurgents?

  • Speed is of the essence: First impressions make the strongest perceptions. When Iraqi insurgents blow up a military vehicle, they videotape the attack from multiple angles, edit a high-impact video, add a sound track with hypnotic chants or songs of victory, and post it on the Internet within hours, complete with a button soliciting donations. By contrast, the military is still gathering information to send out a written press release that needs multiple approvals. Not only does the video reach more people, it also has greater impact on perceptions because it makes its case first. If your brand is attacked, don’t ponder, debate and wait for the lawyers to get back to you. Have a strike force that responds immediately.
  • Make friends before you need them: The strike force must leverage an existing network of information allies. One reason the US prevailed in the Cold War was because it had numerous cultural, educational and economic outreach programs, such as USIA libraries and Radio Free Europe, to citizens behind the Iron Curtain. This built a community who helped promote Western values, and counterbalanced Soviet propaganda. Find out now who your friends are in the media and blogosphere, and line up customers and experts who can credibly support your case.
  • Deliver on promises: In Afghanistan, many US military leaders sit down with tribal leaders over bread and tea before military operations. “If you help us, how can we help you?” The answers can range from Korans to generators. The military gathers the supplies, then hand them over to the tribes within hours after the battle ends. The result is both credibility and goodwill. Listen well to customers and other stakeholders, and make sure you quickly deliver what you have promised.
  • Segment the enemy: Unfortunately, the struggle against violent extremism has fallen into a stupid, self-defeating dichotomy: “you are either with us or against us.” But the new counterinsurgency stresses that differing insurgent groups are likely to have differing agendas, even if they are united in battle. The first step in fighting brand insurgent is to understand each group. The new COIN manual stresses the importance of “insight into cultures, perceptions, values, beliefs, interests and decision-making processes of individuals and groups.” Then, just like customers, insurgents must be segmented, with separate information and other strategies to address their issues. Or, as Pentagonspeak puts it: insurgents must be “disaggregated.” The blogger complaining about customer service must be treated differently than the one questioning corporate environmental policies.
  • Don’t treat customers like the enemy: Customers can’t get through to a live operator? Technician doesn’t show up as promised? Interest rates or other details are changed in fine-print notices? Offers are made to new customers that aren’t made to existing ones? No wonder customers can feel like an enemy that is “targeted,” “captured” or kept at bay. The COIN manual stresses understanding the local environment so much mainly because winning the hearts and minds of the people is vital to counterinsurgency. If you treat customers with distrust and suspicion, then expect them to defect to your true enemy – competitors.
  • Hire brand anthropologists: One reason for the success of the occupations of Germany and Japan after WWII is that the military listened to – even partnered with – anthropologists who understood the local cultures. The US is belatedly sending anthropologists to Iraq and Afghanistan in the spring. Leading design and other firms are moving away from traditional market research to direct observations in the home and workplace. The insights over time are much more valid than those that emerge from a 10-minute survey or two-hour focus group. Either hire such brand anthropologists, or become one yourself by spending as much time with customers as possible.

Branding in the YouTube age is a lot harder than in the days of Big Media, where limited outlets simplified the task of affecting perceptions. But now digital media and other forces give customers – and insurgents – the ability to drive your brand. Slowly, painfully, the US military is learning how to fight back against insurgency. Take their hard-won lessons to heart for your brand.

– Nick Wreden [FusionBrand]

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