Beware: Brands in Public shows how brandjacking is getting more social

The excellent For Immediate Release (FIR) Podcast recently highlighted the launch of Brands in Public, an interesting project from popular marketing/communications author Seth Godin. Brands in Public sets up social media profile pages for brands with content aggregated from social media content from all the normal suspects across the web (blogs, Twitter, forums, news, etc.) – making it available in one handy location. There is also a section of the page that allows you to comment directly on the brand.

As an example, here’s the homepage for Home Depot:

(see the actual page)

Released last week, the service did draw some ire around the original plan to post pages irrespective of whether or not brand owners consented. In addition, brand owners have to pay Brands in Public $400 a month for the privilege of excercising editorial control (including moderating comments) over their pages. Seth has since relented and Brands in Public is now opt-in.

There has been a lot of discussion around this project primarilly discussing the ethics and what this could mean for brands and their online presence. I’m interested in focussing on one aspect: that of brand ownership.

Brand ownership

One thing Brands in Public highlighted is just how easy it is to set up a page focused on a brand you don’t own and populate it with the wealth of social media content that exists out there.

So brand owners better beware! If these pages are tied together into networks (as Brands in Public has done by tying up with Seth’s already well-placed Squidoo site), they will rank highly for brand searches on Google and the other major search engines. In effect, Brands in Public takes some control of the online brand image away from brand owners.

In terms of the creation of these types of pages, as was pointed out on the FIR podcast, you too could be a Seth Godin and go ahead and use services like Netvibes to mock-up similar pages very quickly with little expense. This raises the issue of brandjacking, something which anyone who was involved in the wild west of domain registration 10 years ago is no doubt aware.

However, in this instance the social aspect introduces a new dimension. If such systems become highly popular, brands can end up in an uncomfortable position and may find themselves having to relent to the crowds.

Brand owners already find themselves dealing with similar issues around brand pages on Wikipedia. The difference in this case is that a collection of social media soundbites has the potential to become much more emotive: the intent of the medium isn’t to be instructional or informative, it’s to display conversation in all its vibrant tone and color. If the crowds dictate they want these village square-like properties that allow them to pillor brands, how far can brands go to limit this, before they are accused of trampling established netiquette? If the conversation around your brand heads southwards, how exactly should you react?

Regardless of the ethics of this, if these types of aggregation pages become more prevalent, companies are going to have to consider this aspect of their web presence and find a way to deal with it. Pleading brandjacking may fall on deaf ears as lack of participation is viewed by your prospects and customers as a sign of defensiveness.

Whlst Brands in Public has brought this issue to the fore, regardless of whether it survives or not, I don’t believe we’ve heard the end of this subject.

More on Brands in Public:

Squidoo Backs Down On ‘Brand Campaign’ As Many Are ‘Not so Happy’ About It (TechCrunch)

Launching Brands in Public (Seth’s Blog)

Squiddo, Brands in Public & the risks of aggregation blackmail (Dan McCarthy)

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