Social Media and Brand Hijacking

Brand Hijacking happens when consumers appropriate the brand for themselves and add meaning to it. Most of the times, we get to know only the benign form, when customers act as evangelists. This behavior is something to be encouraged by companies, or as David Armano puts it, brands should act as facilitators, opening communication channels and providing tools and materials (if you’re really hip, wrap it around a Creative Commons license) to consumers.

Brands as facilitators
: Illustration by David Armano

The brand positioning envisioned by the company isn’t always how the consumers perceives it: remember the blockbuster Snakes on a Plane or a more classical brand like Dr. Martens, initially a gardening shoe for senior women, until teenagers hijacked the brand with ideological purposes.

Things can get even dirtier, with the next-generation cybersquatting practices, fueled by search engine marketing or plain digital identity squatting on a new malign form of brand hijacking, with Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and all the social media universe making things even more complicated.
No matter how well-intentioned Alex Wipperfurth was with his book Brand Hijack: Marketing Without Marketing, there will always be people using the (social media) FORCE for the wrong purposes.

On top of these misuses, one big issue remains: most companies are completely out of touch with brand hijacking in social media, with no Online Reputation Management strategies whatsoever.

Mad Men on Twitter

One of the recent episodes of brand hijacking involved AMC Series “Mad Men”, a TV Show that revolves around the advertising world in the 60’s, and Twitter users that were impersonating some of the series characters on the microblogging service.

Mad Men main cast: Photo by MACTV

Don Draper, Betty Draper, Joan Holloway, Sal Romano, Bobbie Barret, Jimmy Barret, Roger Sterling, Pete Campbell, Trudy Campbell, Peggy Olson, Bertram Cooper, Helen Bishop,Paul Linsey, Duck Philips, Bud Melman and even David Ogilvy were all playing their Twitter role, extending the series beyond the TV set, with great respect to the tone of the show (I even suspected at first they were really hired by AMC).

It turns out AMC wasn’t involved at all and when they find about it, a take-down was issued to Twitter with most of the accounts suspended. It can’t really get more clueless than this about social media, when a legion of fans (Don Draper has almost 2000 followers) is evangelizing the show for free and a company silents their voices like this.

With all the Twitter uprising and bad press afterwards, AMC came to their senses and reinstated the accounts (although there was no disclosure of future intentions). At, the Twitter Fans Blog, it was summed up pretty well:

Fan fiction. Brand hijacking. Copyright misuse. Sheer devotion. Call it what you will, but we call it the blurred line between content creators and content consumers, and it’s not going away. We’re your biggest fans, your die-hard proponents, and when your show gets canceled we’ll be among the first to pass around the petition. Talk to us. Befriend us. Engage us. But please, don’t treat us like criminals.
This site exists to catalogue the conversation around AMC’s Mad Men and its fan base across the social web. But it’s just the beginning. ‘We are Sterling Cooper’ is a rallying cry to brands and fans alike to come together and create together.

This sad episode (not of Mad Men, which I’m also a fan), highlighted the dangers and opportunities that brands are facing in social media. On the one hand, brands should listen and participate, being igniters of positive hijacking. On the other hand, it is becoming evident that the same amount of attention that was being put on domain squatting, must be taken in regards to social media identities.

It could happen to your brand

The Mad Men example is mostly about companies being clueless and getting punk’ed by social media. Most of the times it’s a case of not being able to understand these communities. At Twitter for instance, there are plenty of brand hijacking examples, with big names like iPhone, Vivendi, Motorola, Nokia, Intel or WindowsXP not being run by the company. Just imagine the amount of harm to a brand an individual with wrong intentions or resentment could do to your brand.

With this, i’m not defending that a company should go out and start issuing take down notices in every social media service there is. Instead, you should check what you could protect today and start providing these hardcore fans a safe harbor to continue evangelizing your brand, They’re your best friends, your customers, don’t turn them into enemies.

If things really go wrong, you could always go the judicial route or contact the service regarding the issue, but that’s something you should be really be sure, or you could turn into another RIAA.

These concerns not only apply to company brands, but also to individuals. Celebrities, politicians, writers, musicians, everyone that has a digital footprint should care about their social media brand. Just imagine if someone registered your name on Facebook and started using your name. Wait. Perhaps it’s already happening. You’d better check it out.

MySpace and Facebook have plenty of digital copycats, fans with the “me-first” mentality, creating unofficial profiles that are so credible that everyone adds as a friend. Again, most of the times, it’s positive brand hijacking, but what if?

What if someone uses your aliases and start spreading rumors? What if someone takes your Twitter username and then tries to sell them? What if someone starts astroturfing and overlinking on your behalf?

Always use protection

Flickr photo by Corey Ann under a Creative Commons License

So now that i’ve warned you about the problem, what’s a company to do?

  • Register your brand/product name early. How early? As soon as a social media service is generating consistent buzz about your brand. That means that you should have registered yesterday on MySpace, Facebook and Twitter, while monitoring promising services like Friendfeed or Disqus.
  • Ask your agency what to do. I’m sure there is someone smart enough to give you the right answers.
  • Define procedures for brand hijacking as one of your social media best practices. A simple social media policy will do.
  • Get your voice. Is it a push model, or do you actually engage with the users? Delegated or internal ? Formal or Informal conversational tone? Does your company have a a Digital Curator ?
  • Provide aggregation mechanisms. It’s hard to keep pace with all the services. If you don’t have internal resources, services like Friendfeed or SocialThing are a great choice.
  • Track your brand buzz, with free services like,, Google Alerts and Technorati or more professional ones like BrandsEye, BuzzLogic or StartPR.
  • Have a consistent alias/nickname in different services. This is also a great marketing tool, making it easy for fans to guess your channel on YouTube or even getting a few more SERP hits.

All these measures have a preventive character, shielding your brand from being used in harmful ways by users. It mostly relates to domain squatting, that has brought so many troubles to brands, forcing them to take legal actions.

The implications for online advertising are clear: if you’re to launch a new campaign / product / service, be sure to register the most significant aliases in the main social media services. It’s obvious you can’t register all variations, but at least assure the most obvious ones. Think about it as if you were optimizing for search engines. Better yet, think about it as Social Media Marketing.