Thursday, September 4, 2008


As Twitter has become more popular (and stable, btw), we've seen more instances of false identities or brand jacking.  Last month, Jeremiah Owyang uncovered the first situation when ExxonMobil’s spokesperson, “Janet” was exposed as a brand-jacker.  Even though Janet seemed to be espousing the corporate line and supporting all of ExxonMobil’s positions, however uncomfortable, we can all imagine the risk associated with the practice.

Then a few days after it was discovered that @AmericanAir had joined their competitors, SouthwestAir and JetBlue on Twitter, Tim Walker found out that it was an unofficial account - brand-jacked.  Apparently, the ease of use of setting up accounts on Twitter has empowered fans/ customers to pick the identity of their favorite brands.

In the social web era, we demand transparency.  As customers, we need to have conversations with our favorite brand on our social platform of choice and we expect that the brands (or its representatives) that we are talking to, to be transparent in their words and actions as well.  We want to congratulate brands for jumping in to the social media fish bowl, specifically Twitter, and validating our impressions/usage.  As a result, many brands are jumping into social media.  Peter Kim has written an exhaustive, comprehensive list of brands and their social media activities.

But for brands, participating in social media is not as clear cut.  On the one hand, they want to engage in conversations with their customers and help them to spread our news/products and recommend us to their friends.  Put a human face on the brand! As David Armano says, “act as "facilitators" This means that like any good facilitator, they get off center stage, move over to the side and let others do the talking. On the other hand, to have customers speak for the brand may be very uncomfortable, aside from the traditional issues of control and being on message as other customers could get the wrong impression from our “Janet”.  And there may be legal ramifications if fans or other evangelists “speak” for a company.

So what’s a good, transparent, well-meaning brand to do?

Clearly, companies have made major investments in their brands, even though all of the social media dogma suggests that the customers own the brand today. I think we will always see companies protecting their assets and trademarks.  Brands should find ways to protect their identities, yet also empower their influentials and evangelists to support them.  One way to do this could be for Twitter to implement some rules around identity in the account settings.  For example, perhaps you can only create a branded Twitter account if you have a corporate email account. And perhaps the companies will need to register their brand name with Twitter for a fee. There, helping Jack with monetization, too.

Then Janet becomes @janet-fanofExxonMobil.  Is it clear and transparent?  I don’t think anyone would be confused by the practice. We will know who we really are speaking to.  And we wouldn’t diminish anyone’s enthusiasm for the brand.   I’d love to hear your thoughts on this idea.

Up Next, Fan-Jacking ala Mad Men