Skittles' experiment ceded too much control of brand

Last week, Mars, Inc., led by the interactive shop Agency.com, launched a radically redesigned Web site for their candy product, Skittles. The new "un-site" is a simple overlay on social networks focused on the product.

Last week, Mars, Inc., led by the interactive shop Agency.com, launched a radically redesigned Web site for their candy product, Skittles. The new “un-site” is a simple overlay on social networks focused on the product. One view was of the Skittles' Facebook page. Another view was of Skittles' Wikipedia entry. The company chose a Twitter feed about Skittles as its homepage.

In just a few days, the Facebook page had more than 580,000 friends. “Tweets” were coming in fast and furious with pages of Tweets every minute at its peak. But in less than a week, the experiment had blown up and the candy company was forced to change its strategy.

With Twitter as the homepage, the site became a platform for individuals to see themselves show up on the homepage of a major brand. Unfortunately, people made racial epithets, wrote profanities, and Tweeted about competitor products. The conversation went downhill from there.

Mars removed Twitter from its spot as the homepage and replaced it with the safer Wikipedia entry. Twitter is still accessible from the Skittles' site, but without its prominence as the homepage, the stridency of the chatter has died down and the Tweets have become tame.

The Skittles site took an arrogant view of the social networks assuming that they could profit from the natural conversations between individuals. This sent a clear signal to consumers that they didn't really value their thoughts and opinions – they just wanted to use them to make their brand “cool” and drive sales. Of course, the social communities recognized this and reacted swiftly to punish Mars.

There is real value in working within social networks for communications and marketing purposes. The lessons are in how one engages with the communities.

First, you have to treat the communities with respect and without arrogance. You have to authentically involve them in the brand. You have to recognize that your brand is not perfect – and consumers can help you. You have to do the hard work of building engagement and developing loyalty.

Second, don't turn your brand over to your audiences. Marketers have debated who “owns” the brand for a century. Most have agreed that the company owns the desired brand, while what the consumer believes is the active brand. The goal is to ensure that the active brand matches the desired brand. Mars turned the entire brand over to the consumer – not a good idea.

Huard G. Smith is EVP of interactive firm, Virilion.

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