It’s all fun and games until someone gets iced…

Although a number of high-profile companies have had success with user-generated content, it is not irrational to fear that these types of messages could damage brand equity. Inconsistencies in the way consumers portray the brand and how the company strives to portray the brand can create tension and ultimately degrade the company’s reputation in the market. Companies that invite users to create content can take steps to protect themselves to a certain extent, but what happens when consumers take it upon themselves to start the conversation?

Smirnoff faced this dilemma in the early summer of 2010 when it discovered a drinking game website based around its malt beverage, Smirnoff Ice. The game challenged ‘bros’ to punk their friends by presenting them a Smirnoff Ice, which they then had to chug while taking a knee. At first, consumers thought it was a clever marketing campaign gone viral – until the website mysteriously shut down, leaving its fans with the message ‘We had a good run bros.’

Smirnoff’s parent company, Diageo, eventually responded in an article to AdAge, saying “Diageo has taken measures to stop this misuse of its Smirnoff Ice brand and marks, and to make it clear that ‘icing’ does not comply with our marketing code, and was not created or promoted by Diageo, Smirnoff Ice, or anyone associated with Diageo.”

Consumers responded in droves, slamming Smirnoff Ice for shutting down the site and discouraging consumers from having fun with the product.  Besides expressing disappointment, most comments had a common thread; they thought Smirnoff had made a big mistake.

“I think it’s a bad move on Smirnoffs part to just take down the site. I understand they don’t want any liability associated with irresponsible drinking behavior, but honestly, this site created some sort of dialogue for Smirnoff within a group that probably wouldn’t have even touched the stuff prior to the site. Most of the guys I know have heard of the site, think its funny, have participated.”

“This is just stupid on Diageo’s part, both from a business standpoint and branding standpoint. The only people that drink Smirnoff Ice are younger consumers that have nothing but love for brosicingbros.com.

I went into a liquor store a week ago and bought a sixer to ice some bros on my kickball team. I asked how smirnoff ice sales were. The owner said they had skyrocketed.  Money is money. Smirnoff ice is a goofy brand to start. They have been trying to sell the stuff to guys from the start. This is a win-win.  Mike’s hard lemonade……here’s your window bros!”

This highlights a key issue in the user-generated content debate: should companies let consumers own the brand, even when it doesn’t go along with their strategy?  There’s no clear-cut answer to this, but in the next post I’ll discuss some guidelines that can help brands decide how to best address unexpected user-generated content, whether it results from a sponsored marketing campaign or a consumer’s spontaneous creativity.

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