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AR and the risks of brand vandalism

by Jess Luper on 10 April 2012

Augmented Reality apps aren’t new, but while playing around with Aurasma I started thinking about how I, as a consumer, am able to express my feelings about a brand.

I’ve never used AR before, so I started simple, creating a rudimentary example that exemplifies how I can, at the simplest level, say what I think about Marmite.


This love/hate example neatly fits in with the brand ethos of Marmite, which prides itself on the intense emotional response people have to its taste. But for any other brand there’s no doubt that a virtual sign shouting out ‘I hate’ whenever you point your phone at its label, could be seen as a problem. Brand vandalism, if you will.

Obviously, one of the glorious things about social media is that we can publicly comment on (and subvert) a brand however we see fit (as long as we’re not breaking any laws, that is). But we’ve seen how uncomfortable this has made brands in the past.

In 2009 Skittles turned its homepage into a live feed of consumer tweets, where any tweet featuring the word ‘skittles’ would be shown. But thanks to a lack of foresight (and appropriate language censors), chaos ensued.

Similarly, McDonald’s was hit during its ‘McStories’ campaign – when conversation about the brand was hijacked for the best part of a week, with a storm of complaints and vitriolic comment.

So are these sorts of AR apps about to make them terrified?

Well, perhaps. But in both these cases one could argue that the damage done to the brand was minimal. From a personal standpoint, if I’m craving a McFlurry on a sunny day, the likeliness of me being put off by a Twitter tag faux pas is frankly non-existent. But they do highlight a vitally important lesson; social means everyone can, and most probably will, have their say. Brands don’t get to choose who says what about them, whether online, in AR space, or in the real world. Social media and AR are simply new tools with which both brands, and their customers, can share their feelings.

What this does mean, however, is that brands that put themselves out there and encourage participation have to be ready for the consequences – and ready to respond to potentially controversial situations in an appropriate and positive way.

Beyond those instances where a person has a well-founded complaint, the majority of brand vandalism can be seen as silly, irreverent but also complimentary. If your brand excites and interests someone enough to generate an emotional response, even if it’s not on message, that should be welcomed and embraced.

Do the opposite by going on the offensive and you risk ‘doing a Nestle’, turning an opportunity to genuinely engage around an important issue into a potential PR disaster.

Ultimately, being part of the social environment means being part of the conversation. And just like in any conversation, confidence, humility, and not least a healthy dose of humanity, will prevail.

So don’t let the hijacking possibilities of AR put you off exploring an awesome new technology – just – like the proverbial Scouts, be prepared.

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