Sunday, July 6, 2008

Pringles: Social Media and PR

I've often suggested on this blog that social media will change how companies approach everything--not just marketing, but also customer service, recruiting, investor relations, and PR. Actions that once seemed harmless, legitimate, and completely unrelated to consumer communications may come to seem inadvisable in an age when so many consumers are speaking to so many others on blogs, forums, Twitter, Facebook, and other social media sites.

P&G brand Pringles may present us with a test case to observe in the coming weeks. They've done something that I think we can all understand: Because they believe a tax in the U.K. is being inappropriately levied against Pringles, they've gone to court and won the case, resulting in a savings of millions of dollars.

The potential PR problem is that to win they case, they had to argue their product is not a potato chip or a potato product. In the words of the BBC article, "Justice Warren ruled that Pringles were not 'made from the potato'". Of course, the facts are much more complex than that--Pringles' number one ingredient is potatoes; but the product is less than 50% potato, which is why it shouldn't qualify as a potato product under Britain's VAT Act.

In my local newspaper, the article about the Pringles case was just four paragraphs long and tucked into a back page. Prior to the advent of social media, this article would've received little attention, and P&G could have mitigated any PR problems by working with the few large media outlets that controlled much of the news and communication with consumers.

But today, there really is no such thing as a "small story," and a brand's ability to manage PR is limited because the channels in which consumers receive information have been multiplied by social media. This story is being shared and debated across social media channels, with negative sentiment falling into two camps. In Britain, there is disappointment that the company is willing to sell their products but not willing to pay taxes like similar products. And across the globe, consumers are asking each other some variation of the question, "If Pringles aren't made from potatoes, what the heck am I eating?"

With the news just a day old, we can see discussions about the Pringle news item growing:
  • On Twitter, several people are already commenting on the news with declarations such as "Am never eating a Pringle again."
  • Google Blog Search notes 182 references to "pringle potato" in just the past 24 hours. The top couple of results (as of the moment I searched) included blog and forum posts such as, "I wonder how much taxpayers money is spent on this trial. LOL," "The absurdly hypocritical claims were made to weasel out of a British tax on potato crisps and other potato-based foods," and "Wait a minute...if Pringles are less than 50% potato, what's the other 51%+ made of?" (The many responses to that question include, "That other 51% is the stuff they weren't allowed to put in hot dogs.")
  • On Digg, there already have been seven articles posted that have been Dugg 125 times.
  • Popular blog The Consumerist has an article about Pringles that has been viewed over 7,000 times and features almost 70 comments.
The numbers noted above aren't huge, but it's the Saturday of a holiday weekend. Might Pringles be the subject of thousands upon thousands of blog posts, Digg comments, and Twitters come Monday morning? And if so, is it possible they might lose more sales globally than they saved in taxes by winning the case in the U.K.? After all, snack food brands want consumers concentrating on the convenience, taste, and fun, and not on the fact the chip they're eating has 42% potatoes and 58%... something else.

I'm not suggesting P&G has done anything wrong; they have an obligation to protect their brand and shareholder interests, and if the VAT tax was not appropriate, P&G had every right to do what they did. Still, this example is one to watch. It may be that the bad buzz is a mere blip and that Pringles sales will see no adverse impact, but in 2008 it's hard to know how far that buzz may travel. After all, who would've thought that one YouTube video of a snoozing Comcast employee or one of a rat in a single Taco Bell would create the troubles they did for those brands?

Of course, P&G doesn't have to be a silent victim of bad buzz on social media sites. They can participate to share information, influence opinion, and correct improper statements. For example, as people start speculating what the other 58% of Pringles are, they might proactively let people know the product has "No artificial ingredients and no preservatives." Promoting that the number one ingredient is potatoes and that the other major ingredients are innocuous ones such vegetable oil, rice flour and wheat starch may undermine damage done when sarcastic bloggers share half the story--the histrionic half.

Observing if this story has legs in social media, if and how P&G responds, and if the brand might find itself needing to repair any damage will be a interesting test of the affects of social media in 2008.

No comments: