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By B.L. Ochman

What does it take to damage a brand with a hate campaign? That depends on whether the brand is listening, reacting in real-time, and has a community of its own in social media.

While fear of “the haters” damaging the brand is probably the Number One factor keeping many companies out of social media, it’s the companies that are involved in social media that are most likely to survive a brand attack.
As Starbucks has demonstrated in the past week, the reasonable majority of the online community recognizes brand hijackers and calms, or simply ignores, a brewing storm.

Pro-union counterpunch
In an effort to stave off competition and re-gain ground lost in the downturn, Starbucks recently touted its coffee and its corporate values in a multi-million dollar, multi-media campaign. The launch, including a Twitter contest, was quickly met with a Stop Starbucks campaign claiming that the coffee giant is anti-union, among other things. While several blogs reported that rebels hijacked Starbucks campaign, that doesn’t seem to be the end effect.

Stop Starbucks video accusing the company of harassing workers who want to unionize has 59,000 views on YouTube as of today and a Stop Starbucks‘ petition to Starbucks Chairman Howard Schultz had amassed 14,589 signatures.

Starbucks walks the social media walk
Starbucks has 195,509 followers on Twitter. Stop Starbucks has 344. Since the Stop Starbucks campaign started they’ve gained barely 300 followers on Twitter. In the same time period Starbucks added more than nearly 10,000.

Today Starbucks even has a social media director, and a vast community who love Starbuck’s famous burnt bean coffee. In the past week, the majority of Starbucks social media followers defended the company or simply ignored the critics. “There will always be disgruntled ex-employees who criticize any company,” was an oft-expressed opinion.

Matthew Guiste, who manages social media for Starbucks, told me in email that Stop Starbucks didn’t elicit much interest from the My Starbucks community, where members are invited to contribute and vote on suggestions for Starbucks.

“Allow your workers to unionize” was the title of a post in My Starbucks community, where each vote for an idea nets 10 points. As of today, the post has only gotten 40 points and 8 comments.

By contrast, an idea about Dark Chocolate beverages got 5040 points and 38 comments. And one about the size of lids on cups got 40 points.

Coffee drinkers luke-warm to critics
Guiste said the company hadn’t spent much time responding to Stop Starbucks because their campaign didn’t gain much traction from Starbucks Twitter, Facebook, or MyStarbucks community. The response the company did give is replete with what sounds like a lot of old-fashioned corporate-speak.

Starbucks’ new ad campaign included a Twitter contest, challenging followers to seek out Starbucks posters in six major cities and be the first to post a camera phone photo of one via Twitpic, using the hashtags #top3percent and #starbucks.

Within hours, there were dozens of Twitpics in front of stores across the country. And followers of Robert Greenwald and Brave New Films used the same tags to post photos of themselves holding anti-Starbucks messages. According to Guiste, despite reports of a Twitter ‘hijacking” there were only nine entries about Stop Starbucks and those had about 75 views each. Starbucks is mentioned on Twitter about 10 times per minute on an average weekday, so those nine entries were about one minute’s worth of notice, Guiste claimed.

“The bottom line for us: We’re the first to admit that we don’t control the conversation about Starbucks. The bad news for this campaign is neither do they. Ultimately the community decides and we believe that’s a beautiful thing,” he wrote.

The companies most often damaged by criticism are the ones – like Domino’s and Amazon – who don’t monitor their brand in social media and respond to issues in a timely manner. The bottom line remains the same though: criticism often means change is needed, and smart companies listen. Ask Dell. Or Kryptonite.

Starbucks online presence has come a long way
Starbucks has come a long way since 2004, when it missed an obvious online opportunity for customer interaction, to 2005 when it was firing employees for blogging, to its 2007 toe-in-the-water Expedition for Change to the March, 2008 launch of the crowdsourcing My Starbucks Idea community, where more than 70,000 ideas have been submitted since its launch.

Starbucks has been facing a variety of problems, and Stop Starbucks is far from the biggest one: McDonald’s coffee recently won a Consumer Reports taste test, which recommended “Try McDonald’s, which was cheapest and best, or make your own coffee–just call it something special.”

Starbucks has closed more than 600 stores and laid off many employees. Not only that: McDonald’s is poised to open 1,000 coffee bars in Europe, and the US would presumably be next. A Big Research study shows Starbucks coffee is still Number One with consumers, with McDonald’s an ever-closer second.
Having an established online community allows instant assessment and engagement. And those two things saved Starbucks neck in the past week.