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Heineken’s dog fight 'distress' shows the perils of viral marketing

By Ben Bouckley , 23-Apr-2012
Last updated on 24-Apr-2012 at 12:30 GMT

Picture Copyright: Matt McDaniel
Picture Copyright: Matt McDaniel

Heineken has condemned images showing its branding displayed at a Mongolian dog-fighting event, but consumer disgust and the resultant media furore shows that viral web ‘branding’ is like a nuclear bomb, undeniably effective but with unpredictable and sometimes grotesque results.

The Dutch brewer quickly distanced itself from the images on social media channels - where tellingly the story broke - and said: “This is very distressing and totally unacceptable. As a company and a brand owner, we do not and would never knowingly support any event, outlet or individual involved in this type of activity.

“It is against our company and brand rules, and – more important – against our company values.”

An investigation showed that the event took place in a Mongolian night club, Heineken said, where the venue hosted a dog fight – although apparently not while the local punters were jiving away – “of which we [the brand] had no knowledge and were not involved in any way”.

It added: “The venue owner has verbally confirmed that Heineken banners are visible in the pictures because the previous evening the club had been decorated for a promotional event, and he had failed to remove the banners once it was over. The event was in no way related to the dog fight.”

Phoenix from the flames?

Now any serious brand owner wants their brand to go viral for all the right reasons. By definition a virus is a parasite that draws strength by killing its host; but the latter must eventually kill the virus to save itself: ephemeral brand chatter dies out; the brand rises like a Phoenix, a new campaign commences.

But woe betide the brand swamped by viral chatter. And as $3.8bn dollar (2011) brands go, Heineken deserves some sympathy in the current case. Mongolia, Montana? Doesn't matter where the dog fight happens, once such images appear online and the global media hound starts jawing the story's juicy marrow.

Also, check out this Flickr photo – how can the firm be held responsible for someone who decides to (it seems) mess up their mutt with 5% ABV lager? Witness the sometimes sorry success of a mega global brand.

Roughly speaking, the birth of mega brands mirrors the rise of modern media – and brands such as Heineken and Coke have thrived from the free oxygen of, say, re-runs of 70s movies showing their branding in bars, as well as paid adverts since the advent of newspapers and television commercials, celebrity tie-ups.

But the internet is media monster no-one can fully control, a welcome democratic force that brings unexpected, positive PR, but can also cause mass-scale misunderstandings, brand-related damage, unwanted associations, where the consumer controls communication channels and is prosecutor, judge and jury – shooting first, asking questions later.

Big brands like Heineken are learning to take the smooth with the rough, limit the PR fallout from that unwanted internet A-bomb. Pushing a brand online is a game of high stakes with handsome rewards, but it's a risky business. Well, wasn't business always risky...?

Kraft provokes nipple ripple

Then there's always the risk of misjudgment or carelessness, where the web can punish you pitilessly. Take Kraft's when a recent Oreo poster showing a baby sucking a breast with a nipple partially exposed (with the caption ‘milk’s favourite cookie’) went viral online. Kraft apologised and said the poster was designed for a one-off Korean advertising awards forum. Offensive? Damaging? You decide.

But as a journalist I am also struck by the increasingly surreal disconnect between some large firms' ‘master’ discourses: investor relations releases, interviews with apparently interchangeable, cautious people from corporate communications, then the wider risky banality of constant ‘brand chatter’ around P2P media that is variously fun, edgy, irreverent, irrelevant, (sometimes) offensive, and (rarely) ‘interesting’.

Heineken says it has cut ties with the club and withdrawn all its product stock, and told its distributor in Mongolia to ensure such illegal activities do not take place; it would continue to ensure strict advertising and promotion guidelines enforcement. There was time also for a quick grovel.

“We want to thank our consumers online for bringing this issue to our attention. We are shocked and disappointed by these images. We fully understand the level of negative feeling amongst consumers based on what they have seen.”

“We appreciate that the vast majority have asked for our point of view before making a judgment. We encourage our consumers to continue to use social media channels to alert us to any situation where they feel our brands are being misrepresented, so we can take the appropriate actions.”

Ben Bouckley is a deputy online editor at William Reed Business Media and writes for BeverageDaily.com