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Tuesday, February 19, 2013


Those who feel wronged by corporations have increasingly taken to social media to get their revenge.

For business, this represents a threat — and an opportunity — that obviously can't be ignored. A 2012 Nielsen survey found that people value advice from online peers on both what to buy as well as what to avoid. Almost two in tree of those who review products online say they do so to protect others; an additional one in four use social media to punish corporations for their own bad experiences.

This disciplining of brands through social media is a global phenomenon, but there are important regional differences and corporations would do well to localize their response.

This is especially true in emerging markets, which are rapidly catching up with wealthy nations in online penetration. The U.S. may have the most Facebook members of any country, at about 170 million people. But Brazil, India, and Indonesia together have more. Mexico, Turkey, and the Philippines together add another 100 million Facebook users. China's Facebook, Renren Network, boasts about 160 million users. These are some of the countries where corporations need to quickly develop a sustainable social media strategy before it is too late.

Is there anything that corporations have learned in developed markets which might be transferable? Yes there is. Recent consumer research in Canada shows that consumers feel most uncomfortable and become most voluble and strident when they sense they are responsible for a product's failure. This is likely to be highly relevant in societies where lower average education levels mean buyers will more frequently face products they find hard to use.

Still, it seems likely that most complaints about products and services stem from actual flaws in those products and services. This is true in high-income countries as well as low-income ones, but in high-income economies people generally have alternative channels through which to voice their complaints. Over centuries, these societies have designed effective systems for administration of justice. There, citizens are likely to feel their reasonable complaints will be properly attended to — unlike in many low-income societies.

This helps explain the eagerness, and vociferousness, with which consumers have taken to complaining via social media in emerging markets such as Brazil. A fascinating perspective on this can be found in research conducted in Sri Lanka in the 1970s by the renowned anthropologist Gananath Obeyesekere.

Obeyesekere sought to explain why so many Sinhalese enlisted the help of sorcerers to put painful or even deadly spells on those who had wronged them. He found that it was in part due to their distrust of the formal legal system, which left them feeling impotent and unable to seek restitution or justice. Anger combined with impotence is not something that people are proud of. Obeyesekere's subjects often resorted to sorcerers at distant shrines to avoid being seen in their own community as weak enough to seek "getting back" through sorcery. The deities whose powers were called for at these shrines were seen as arbiters of justice who "punish evil doers and redress wrongs."

Social media in developing countries today provides some of the soothing elements of Sinhalese sorcery. When products the consumer has paid for do not work, frustration is a likely result. Seeking reparation through formal channels and not getting enough of it will add insult after injury and the ensuing anger will trigger retribution. Anger vented through social media is likely to damage the image of the brand and therefore inflict pain on the corporation which the customer is angry with. Additionally, social media provides enough anonymity to hide the weak should they find that preferable.

What corporations doing business in emerging markets need to realize is that, in order to avoid firestorms of social media backlash, they need to think harder about the needs and abilities of their customers. For example, multinational corporations in Brazil, managed by an English-speaking elite, frequently sell goods packaged in China with instructions in several languages that are all targeted at reading level about twice that of the average Brazilian customer. The same products might frustrate Brazilian customers less if they were packaged in Brazil with more user-friendly instruction manuals in the local language. In the meantime, said corporations might even find that promoting employees who don't belong to the country's elite to decision-making positions may help them avoid such simple mistakes, along with contributing to corporate social responsibility.

In all, corporations in developing countries have not shown a friendly enough face after separating customers from their money. Brazilian customers when poorly serviced react angrily and resort to complaining through social media. In this sense, social media has replaced the sorcerer's function; and it works even better: Corporations in Brazil act more speedily in dealing with customers who complain through social media.

Alfredo Behrens is professor of Global Leadership at Faculdade FIA de Administração e Negócios in São Paulo. His most recent book is Shooting Heroes and Rewarding Cowards: A Sure Path Towards Organizational Disaster.

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