Dave Carroll

Quentin Langley: 'Brandjack'

Social media campaigns and the related technology make brands vulnerable to a phenomenon called ‘brandjacking’. Nick Smith talks to author Quentin Langley whose new book explains all.

We’re so used to being told that digital technology, and in particular the Internet, has somehow ‘democratised’ the world we live in that the word, even when it is used correctly (which isn’t very often), has ceased to perform any meaningful linguistic function. It’s one of those buzzwords that gets thrown about because even if you look stupid when you use it, you’ll look stupider when you don’t.But it does seem to have found a real semantic home in the field of what author Quentin Langley calls brandjacking, where freedom and power, it seems, can be put into the hands of anyone with a need for it.

The aggrieved and the disenfranchised now have a tool with which to fight the faceless, monolithic organisations that oppress them. And that tool is called the brandjack, a portmanteau term derived from the words ‘brand’ and ‘hijack’. On one hand, brandjacking provides net-squatters who have an axe to grind with the opportunity to weaken their targets by impersonating them in a compromising light. On the other, it can be a force for good, although that might depend on what you think ‘good’ is. With brandjacking, even if it’s not exactly a case of the meek inheriting the earth, the country and western singer can give the major airline a bloody nose.

Although Langley is too polite to say so, brandjacking is fundamentally all about harnessing the power of social media to ‘stick it to the man.’ The story of unknown country and western singer Dave Carroll taking on United Airlines is a classic in that it has at its core a sense of social justice that was once beyond the reach of the common man. Big airline breaks your guitar and then refuses to engage in conversation with you once meant the matter ended in righteous indignation, unless of course you had a colossal personal fortune you were prepared to blow on legal fees.

Carroll retaliated by writing a song with the specific intention of embarrassing the increasingly anonymous corporation into saying sorry and buying him a new guitar. Carroll must have been seething with rage, and yet he was able to stay within the bounds of decency, legality and honesty while exposing United Airlines’ unorthodox approach to caring for fragile musical instruments left in their charge.

With a resourcefulness that was to humiliate the airline, he used free Internet technology and ‘brandjacked’ United to his fanbase. Perhaps he couldn’t have predicted the power of the multiplication of forwarded links to his video, but before long he’d not just made United notorious: he’d also exposed a presumably gleeful Taylor Guitars to nine million people who are interested in country and western music. No wonder they gave Carroll a new guitar.

Power of the brandjack

If you doubt the power of the brandjack, says Langley, look at Carroll: “Look at the scale of it and the money involved. Here we have a little-known country singer... then he wrote the song ‘United Breaks Guitars’ and he cost a major multi-national $180m in four days: one guy, four days, $180m.”

Langley thinks that technology companies are particularly vulnerable to brandjack attack. He says that “engineers are trained to think that being right is more important than being on time. Great advice for building a bridge or designing a nuclear plant”. But, he continues, this approach does not work in social media, where there is a premium on speed. “Dell, Boeing, Shell, GM, BP and ExxonMobil have been caught out,” Langley adds.

“A brandjack happens when an organisation loses control of the conversation around its brand in social media,” he explains. “Twitter impersonators, campaigns by activist groups and mistakes within the business can all be devastating. YouTube is the breakthrough technology of brandjacking. With Greenpeace able to produce its own version of a company’s adverts, and with its existing network of volunteers to share them, a business can quickly become the target of ridicule or anger. This costs real money. Power structures in media and reputation have been turned upside down, and engineering businesses in particular are in the crosshairs.”

For Langley the brandjack is any crisis that starts in, or significantly develops within, social media. “It can affect any organisation or person: the case studies include businesses, governments, politicians and celebrities. Your brand, or reputation, is fundamental. It is the reason people choose one company over another.

“Big businesses – for example in the oil sector – can be valued at tens of billions more (or less) than the value of their physical assets because of the trust people place in them,” Langley says. “But this is an asset you don’t control and can’t manage. You can only influence it, because your reputation exists in the head of other people.”

In-house attacks

Before we get carried away with the idea that the sole function of the brandjack is to act as a digital Robin Hood, where natural justice can prevail over cohorts of corporate lawyers, it needs to be pointed out that the phenomenon can also be either accidentally damaging or used for more nefarious purposes.

In his book Langley points out that three-quarters of brandjacks are self-inflicted, either through incompetence (emails going to the wrong person), or where disaffected workers leak secrets in an attempt to damage the organisation that pays their salt. “Mistakes within the organisation itself are the most common, followed by errors or malfeasance by staff and campaigns by activist groups. The disaffected customer and the dedicated impersonator are real issues and can be very damaging, but they are much less common than the self-brandjack and the staff-brandjack.”

What do you do if you suddenly find yourself on the wrong end of a brandjacking? “You have to move fast,” says Langley. “It has always been there, but with digital social media, the scale and the reach are unprecedented.

“The rumours that spread in bars and coffee shops did not have the same potential to bring an organisation down as one that is trending on Twitter. You need to invest in monitoring social media and developing brand ambassadors among your staff, customers and suppliers, who will speak out on your behalf.”

And you’ve got to do this, says Langley, because out there somewhere is “that one disaffected customer or employee ready to hit you to the tune of tens or hundreds of millions of dollars when you are not expecting it”.

‘Brandjack’ by Quentin Langley is published by Palgrave Macmillan, £22.99

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