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Ahoy Trader Joe's! It's Not the Pirate That Is Hurting Your Brand

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Last month Trader Joe's filed suit against Pirate Joe's, claiming potential damage to its corporate brand from its ultimate fan boy, now simply known as _irate Joe. The lawsuit was met with a smattering of snickers and boos in social media circles, with Pirate Joe's claiming the overwhelming fan sentiment. Problem is, Trader Joe's never heard any of the backlash, because it doesn't even participate in social media -- forget measuring, analyzing and benchmarking it. This lack of presence, especially on a local level, is doing way more harm to the Trader Joe's brand than the existence of Pirate Joe's.

It would do well to take a cue from a smaller, smarter grocery brand, PCC Natural Markets. Not only is PCC a leader in terms of its social media strategy, it also tracks, analyzes and takes action on what its customers are saying through the use of social media monitoring tools and in-store sentiment analysis tools. The company cares about what its customers are saying in social media circles and on review sites about the customer experience at each of its store locations, and works diligently to address those concerns on a daily basis.

"At PCC we engaged with social media early on," says PCC's Social Media Specialist, Ricardo Rabago. "However, we never entered the game for the 'cool' factor. From the beginning all we have done is focus on customer service, and the tools we employ allows PCC to communicate directly with its customers and solve customer service problems at the store level."

Trader Joe's attracts many of the same types of customers as PCC - those looking for GMO-free, organic food - but does little to retain those customers. In a day and age when the majority of consumers communicate by mobile phone and an overwhelming amount of consumers make buying decisions based on local searches, the strategic decision to avoid social media is anything but strategic; rather it is suicide by community.

Rainbow Kirby, Director of Events Marketing and Communications at ClearChannel, has conducted perhaps the most extensive research on Trader Joe's missing social media presence; a project that was undertaken as a graduate student at NYU.

"All it takes is one PR disaster to muddy your reputation and plunge sales," says Kirby. "If you are not controlling your own message in this day and age, as the Trader Joe's story illustrates, someone else will."

And there is the deep rub. When a customer stumbles on a local Facebook page for a Trader Joe's location in Los Angeles, for example, and posts a pertinent comment or question he or she expects a timely response from the brand. The customer naturally assumes that the brand owns that Facebook page. In Trader Joe's case, however, this assumption is pure folly. Not only does the brand not own the page, it hasn't taken the time to claim it, or even scan it for brand issues. Trader Joe's local Facebook presence is a virtual ghost town, but then so is its presence on Twitter, Google+ Local, Foursquare, Instagram and Pinterest.

Here's a great visual example of Trader Joe's 'ghost town' strategy. At this specific location a Trader Joe's customer posted a photo on Foursquare complaining about a broken, in-store wine display and other customers chimed in with their own comments. Trader Joe's response? Non-existent.

And it gets worse. Not only is Trader Joe's missing out on an opportunity to engage with its customers and address its customers concerns, thereby improving its operation processes and customer experience, it is letting its fans run the show on social media. The concerns about Pirate Joe's fall on deaf ears when the company turns a blind eye to the only social media presence it has, which is run by fans, but often confused as being owned by the brand.

The most glaring example? TraderJoe'sList encompasses Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, Pinterest, Instagram and a blog site, all run by a Trader Joe's fan named Natasha Fischer, who seems genuinely jazzed by Trader Joe's selection of products. The sheer amount of content this woman is putting out, however, requires a ton of work. Why would a fan do this for free? Voicemails left for Fischer went unanswered, but from outside appearances it appears Fischer isn't doing all of this work for free. Her blog site is littered with advertisements from big brands!

When your fans are contributing the only content related to your brand, and apparently getting paid for it, problems will ensue. Unfortunately, calls to Trader Joe's public relations department landed in voicemail, with no responses. Certainly the brand is aware of this fan-based generation and spread of content, as it was certainly aware of what _irate Joe was doing in Canada before deciding to file suit. Will the brand eventually sue fans like Fischer when it decides to claim its local presence? And if so, how will it manage the resulting uproar on the Twitter-verse?

Sue a pirate? The Internets scoff. Sue a fan? That fanbase goes away for good.