When company executives think about managing the online reputations of their organizations, they are typically concerned with what people are writing about them on websites, blogs, and social media platforms. But they must now recognize their reputations can be damaged in the electronic media space by something "worth a thousand words": a picture. Without saying a word, disgruntled consumers can paint a negative picture of a company's trademarked brand.
Consider these examples: A consumer doesn't like a particular brand of soda he has purchased. He tweets a negative message about the product to his followers but doesn't mention the brand by name. Instead, he snaps a photograph of the soda can and attaches it to the negative message.
Because of the power of social media, it's becoming increasingly important for companies to track the use of their brand images in this space. "One of the key things is if you're not protecting your brand imagery, then you're opening yourself up to more because other people see it and are encouraged by it," says Jeremy Goldman, founder and CEO of management consultancy Firebrand Group and author of Going Social: Excite Customers, Generate Buzz, and Energize Your Brand With the Power of Social Media.
Imagery-based brand recognition tools are emerging to help brand marketers monitor the misuse of trademarked images. Tools can track and monitor a company's images, which can include logos and other brand-specific images, as well as product photographs. The tools, such as those offered by LTU technologies, can also identify logos and their misuse by analyzing pixels of image data and comparing aspects of those images, such as colors and shapes, which can help determine if a logo is a positive image or if it has been tampered with and converted into a negative-looking one.
"In the sense of social media, there have been situations where different brands' trademarked logos have been defaced by people that just don't like them," says Stephen Shepherd, general manager and vice president of sales for the Americas and Asia for LTU technologies, which offers image recognition technology solutions. Shepherd says companies can use image recognition tools "to become aware of those kinds of things so then they can take the next appropriate business action." One such action could be working to convert that bad customer into a good one.
"We feel the corporate communications groups of especially ... the larger brands of the world will want to know information about how their brand is being conveyed in social media," says Shepherd. "Our technology allows us to match on the logo, on good and bad images."
Because those damaging images can be distributed in a matter of seconds-and can build negative buzz just as quickly-companies need to keep a constant eye on how they are being portrayed in the social media world. "It's hard to keep track of it, but it's impossible to keep track of it by just mining for keywords in a database or in a news feed or news stream," says Shepherd. "With the combination of key category words and image analysis, we feel they're both very good companion tools that can help address this growing problem and I believe it's just getting started."
The image recognition tool is a fairly new offering for LTU technologies, but it's starting to gain traction with clients. "Often there have been a few times where [clients] have said ‘this would never happen to us' and they learn about it and they become more interested," says Shepherd. "It's so new that they don't even think about it. It's very real."
While some marketers might feel that any publicity is good publicity, in the case of attention around defaced images, that's not the best strategy. "It takes longer to deface an image than to just say something in text. People want to get a better return on it," says Goldman. "So it has to be a brand people are familiar with to make it worth it. That's the challenge you're up against. If it's a brand worth defacing, people are already familiar with it. It doesn't need that [negative type of] promotion."
Many well-known brand images have been victims of defacement, such as those representing BP, Starbucks, and McDonald's. LTU has also identified instances in which photographs of Starbucks coffee cups are taken and attached to text comments about the coffee. "When someone has a bad experience, they could be in China, in France, anywhere and without ever mentioning Starbucks, that logo can appear-someone can take a picture of their cup with the logo on it or we have found people took the logo and created derivative logos that were not very nice," says Shepherd.
How companies will likely use the technology may depend on their size. Shepherd says smaller companies may choose to bundle it with social media analytics offerings they receive from other vendors. "The social media analytics company would likely build our technology into the platform that they have that makes it easy for a smaller company, or one that doesn't have an IT infrastructure to implement it on," he says. Larger companies, with their own IT staffs, would probably choose to license the software and integrate it into their present systems.
Shepherd is convinced there will be a demand from all companies. "I think that because it's emerging now we'll only appeal to some of the largest companies as direct customers," he says. "But the social media analytics firms are growing everyday, and they're already engaged with the social media director, providing them a dashboard, snapshot that ties revenue to social activities. We can add the visual component that gives them more intelligence."
While not familiar with LTU's offering, Goldman said the need to invest in this type of solution will become necessary for companies as they seek to protect their valuable brands in the social media space-and as the technology continues to improve. "For a number of years, people have heard this type of software isn't yet ready for prime time. That's the biggest challenge," says Goldman. "It takes a while to convince people that it's good. But it's still something, absolutely, over the next five to 10 years, that organizations need to be invested in."