04/03/2011 01:51 pm ET Updated Jun 03, 2011

Volvo's Social Media #Fail

It used to be that in marketing, the brand with the most cash won. Hands down. You could 'carpet bomb' a market, you could 'own' the conversation, you could beat the drum until the only thing consumers could hear was the sound of your message. It wasn't cheap, and it wasn't good marketing, but it worked.

Now, customers have taken that away from brands -- turning their passions, or their pet peeves, into web content that catches fire -- and moves quickly to the top of social media and search results.

So, what's a brand to do? Gary Vaynerchuck says we live in the world of the Thank You Economy, where marketers and retail need to connect with consumers and have real one-on-one relationships in order to build loyalty and trust. Gary makes a good argument for that, and I tend to agree with him.

But increasingly, I'm seeing examples of brands who bury their head in the sand, or worse, when it comes to engaging customers.

So, what I wanted to share today was a perfect story of brand failure, and 5 simple practices that brands need to adopt if they want to survive in the world where customers have taken control of the message.

So, let's start back at the beginning.

About two years ago, someone built a collection of videos on called Volvo Cars. This was a fan site, lots of sexy car shots. About six months after the site went up, a crack team from Volvo legal contacted us. The claim was that the site had violated Volvo's trademark, and had to be taken down. Now, I'm not an attorney, but in about three seconds I was able to come up with a whole bunch of Volvo fan sites that the word Volvo in them, and in fact, it wasn't clear to me what about the site bothered Volvo. I wrote back and pointed out that sites like,,,, and even have a long tradition of being able to have protection under the first amendment. BTW, on Peta they say that PETA stands for People Eat Tasty Animals - surely confusing visitors as to the true message of PETA and its ethical treatment agenda.

I pointed out to the Volvo team that if changing VolvoCars to VolvoSucks would solve their concern, I'd reach out to the site owner and make that suggestion.

They went strangely silent after that.

But now that Ford has sold Volvo to the Chinese car company Geely Corp., the web's brand police are back in business.

I got this lovely legal letter from the attorney's at Volvo yet again.

Read the letter here

It's almost funny. A site that has videos of Volvo fans is being sent a take down notice by Volvo for LOVING THEIR PRODUCTS? Seriously. It's Gary's Thank You Economy upside down with the word "Thank" replaced with a word that beings with the letter "F".

Come on guys -- there are enough unhappy customers out there to joust with. Why would you take on happy customers?

Which brings me to my 5 Rules of Curated Consumer Conversations:

- Brands no longer control the conversation. So be nice. Invite customers to share, and don't expect only positive feedback.

- Rules of conduct are ok. You can edit language of belligerent posts or video: but don't take down criticism, it's part of the conversation.

- Invite customers in. You'd rather have feedback in your curated conversation, than on a site.

- Customers are your marketing department. Zappos figured it out. Happy customers tweet, facebook, and blog your brand story.

- Everyone matters. If you only focus on twitter accounts with large followers, you miss the opportunity to grow your fan base from the ground up.

The conclusion is -- the world is moving fast, and getting noisy. Without your involvement, the unhappy customers will be the loudest voices talking about your brand. But if you embrace and amplify your fans -- you have a chance at turning the brand conversation into a supportive and engaged community.