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3Qs: Is a ‘brand’ new game emerging online?

Last week, major Internet brands including Google and Wikipedia launched a campaign to raise public awareness and influence voting in Congress on two bills regarding online piracy: the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA). Thousands of websites participated in a 24-hour protest of the legislation, and encouraged web users to sign a petition and contact their representatives. We asked Bruce Clark, associate professor of marketing and the Frank Murphy Family Fellow at Northeastern to discuss the impact of companies using their brands to take a stand on such issues.

Is this a one-off event, or the sign of a new trend? Have other brands made similar attempts in the past?

It is unusual, but brands in the past have sometimes reached out to customers and other groups encouraging them to “call their congressman.” For example, in the depths of their financial crisis in 2008, General Motors solicited dealers and customer groups to lobby on behalf of the automotive rescue package being considered in Washington. What is different about the current example is the breathtaking speed with which Google and Wikipedia were able to mobilize awareness of and opposition to SOPA and PIPA. Obviously the Internet and social media make it easier to do this. The means to mobilize are thus much more powerful. I would expect more efforts of this type, but their success will depend on the size of the following a brand has and the degree to which the political message matches the brand’s values. I think this would have been much less successful if the two companies had thrown their weight behind something less central to their services, such as Medicare reform.

What are the risks to brand reputation when using a brand to make a political statement?

The risk is that customers decide the brand does not stand what they stand for, and therefore develop negative attitudes toward the brand. Customers can live with not knowing the political activities of their brands — people in general probably have little knowledge of the lobbying in which a company they buy from engages — but once the company puts it in their face, customers can no longer ignore a value conflict. How big the damage is depends on how broad a market the brand targets. For mass-market brands, any political statement risks alienating some part of their customer base. That may be worth the risk, but it is a risk. Niche market brands can be bolder in the sense that they probably have a more coherent customer base. Niche brand customers may even be pleased when a brand annoys some non-customer group and thus be enthusiastic about participating in that initiative.

How do you think consumers have reacted to last week’s actions? Will there be any longer-term impact on Google/Wikipedia’s brand image as a result?

So far it looks as if Google and Wikipedia are the big winners and the lumbering content conglomerates the losers. For Google and Wikipedia, there’s a sense among their (very broad) constituency that the two companies stood up for an important Internet principle, the free movement of all data. As I suggested above, one of the reasons this works so well for the two brands is that “freedom of data movement” is part of their fundamental value proposition in the first place. Given this success, I think both companies need to be careful not to overreach. This probably only works across a narrow range of brand-relevant issues.

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