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If I can just give to the world more than I take from it, I will be a very happy man. For there is no greater joy in life than to give. Motto : Live, Laugh and Love. You can follow me on Twitter too . My handle is @Raja_Sw.

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Samsung - when "marketing" goes horribly wrong!

Disclaimer: I have NOTHING to do with Samsung or any of its competitors. I have NOTHING to do with the tech or professional blogging industry.  Am just a random blogger who has opinions on all sorts of things in this world and does not usually keep his opinions to himself. You are most welcome to disagree with my views – and I respect your right to do so. So, with malice towards none...

One of the hot topics doing the rounds on social media in the last few days is about how two tech bloggers from India were sent by Samsung India to Berlin to cover the IFA event there. There’s a lot available about this whole sordid episode on the net – I will not therefore repeat the whole story. You can catch more about it here .

In short, the two bloggers (one of them preferred to not be named, the other who has raised a hue and cry is Clinton Jeff (CJ), apparently a well-known tech blogger) clearly agreed to be sent by Samsung only in the capacity of “reporters” and not “promoters” for Samsung. Once they’d reached Berlin however, they were required to undertake various promotional activities. When they refused, they were told that from that moment on, they were on their own - Samsung would not arrange for their return flight / hotel accommodation.

Maybe I’m over-simplifying the whole thing – and like I said, more details are available on the net – but I don’t want to add to the echo by just repeating what’s already out there. Besides, I know nothing about the mobile tech industry, nothing about tech blogging, not much about product marketing – so, while common wisdom would suggest I should just keep my mouth shut, I do think I know a bit about corporate behavior. And I do think, at a holistic level, this is more about that than about any specific incident.

So here’s my high-level take on this, after reading a number of blogposts on the subject (and hundreds of comments from people far more experienced in this field than I am).

First of all, it is absolutely inexcusable that a company makes a threat like this to anybody – to just leave the person high and dry, in a foreign land. Not only is it thoroughly unprofessional, it is JUST NOT ON! At the very least, if the company was unable to work it out with the bloggers in Berlin, they could have taken action against them on their return to India. IF they felt they had a case. That would have been the professional thing to do – I give you a contract, you breach the contract, I sue you. Instead, they went the “mafia” route. What is this? Godfather – Part 4?

Secondly, I do think Samsung does not even have a fig-leaf to cover itself in this matter. For me the absolute clincher is that the bloggers (well, CJ at least) made it very clear UPFRONT that they would go only as “reporters” for the event and not as “promoters”. The moment they made that clear, Samsung should have backed off.

But clearly Samsung, for some reason, WANTED them to go. So they, as is very common in such situations, trivialised the difference between “reporter” and “promoter”, effectively ignoring it (and, as anybody with any sense of integrity will tell you, there is a BIG difference between the two).

Samsung knew all along what it wanted from these bloggers. It was not the first time they were arranging this marketing programme – they knew exactly what it involved. And if they didn’t, they should have. And they should have communicated it in full detail upfront to the bloggers. If, after doing that, the bloggers chose to still go ahead – and then backed out onsite – Samsung may have had a case (even then the “mafia” treatment would not be on!). Without this disclosure, Samsung really did not have much of a case – which may be one reason why they went with the mafia approach. It could well have worked – when you are in a foreign land (apparently at somebody’s mercy), you are more easily malleable to demands from that party.

Unfortunately for Samsung, it did not work. CJ did not just “roll over” – and from that moment on, it began going wrong for Samsung.

In typical corporate damage-control mode, Samsung will now be desperate to save some face from this episode. It will become a PR case-study (maybe for students in college too) – but to me this is more than just a public relations issue.

This is an integrity issue. It is an issue of ethics.

Had this been a start-up, in its first product launch event, trying to garner a bunch of guys to help market its products I may have understood a goof-up like this. Start-ups often do not have systems  in place, they don’t have elaborate dos-and-don’ts or processes laid out, they make mistakes, they learn from them, they hone their processes.

Samsung is hardly a startup. They are at the bleeding edge of consumer products and consumer marketing. They must be having huge marketing budgets and teams, they’ve done lots of product launches, this particular launch in Berlin is not their first. In fact, they have this “Mobi!er” programme for a while – so they must be considered veterans at this game.

That is why I absolutely refuse to believe that this was just a one-off, unfortunate incident due to a “misunderstanding”. Ok, so this one came to light – I wonder how many have not come to light at all? Either because a deal was struck, or the concerned blogger caved in, or just didn’t bother to make an issue of it. I think I’ve read something about a France-related Samsung incident too.

I don’t want to make this about Samsung alone. True, I may be coming down strongly on them here – but this is not to say that other corporates do not indulge in such practices. Or even that they do. It is all about good and bad practice - and could happen to any company.

While on this, I find some arguments rather absurd. If you question one company’s dodgy practice, you find comments saying “yes, but X company also does it. Actually everybody is doing it”. As if that sort of legitimizes that behavior!

I also came across comments blaming the blogger, saying he should have “expected” to be promoting Samsung onsite seeing as they were sponsoring his trip. The “no such thing as a free lunch” argument. I don’t agree with this because he did make it clear upfront what he expected his role to be. If Samsung was ok with this, how can the blogger be blamed?

I just think in this very dog-eats-dog world, one can never be too careful about intentions of the other party one is dealing with. However “big” or “reputed” that party is.

We sometimes tend to equate company size, image, products and global presence with integrity. Big companies LOVE that we do this - but we should know that they are VERY different things! Surely we’ve seen enough examples in recent times to make us wary of corporations and their integrity?

Also, it is always better to be safe than sorry. Especially in business dealings. Get everything in black-and-white so that you have a case if somebody tries to use/abuse you. Sad, but that’s the world we live in – and we need to protect ourselves.
In this particular instance, I think what CJ could have done better (instead of just saying he wanted to go as "reporter" and not "promoter") is to ask Samsung to give him in writing what specific activities he'd need to do on their behalf. Like donning their uniform, attending their briefing session, representing them at their stall as their spokesperson. 

When you nail it down to this detail, you get a better sense of the whole picture, there is less room for assumptions and surprises, you can make a better call. (I think I read a comment on one of the blogs saying that Samsung does lay down, in detail, what they expect from “reporters” and “promoters”. Possibly, this was not shared with CJ. Maybe an oversight, maybe not.  It is not unusual that parties keep things vague, they obfuscate matters if it plays to their advantage.) 

A final note – SCREAM if you feel you’re being wronged. Corporates HATE negative publicity – their PR departments will go into overdrive to start damage-limitation and issue “appropriate messages” to social media. But deep down they know that the damage has been done already – and that is what we should make them realize. So that they pre-empt situations arising, they pre-empt bad practice, they weed out poor employees. Nothing like negative feedback to galvanise corporates, to keep them on their toes. And thankfully today we have social media to help us to reach the whole world with our voice. (One of course is better advised to use this medium only if there is a genuine case of injustice – otherwise this is a double-edged sword).

It is said that every cloud has a silver lining. That even from something bad, eventually something good does come out of it. If, from this sordid episode, there is a better awareness and understanding of how to deal with corporates (especially if you are just an individual), then I’d say some good HAS come out of this.

P.S: This piece may appear to be rather one-sided, or not “balanced” enough. It may look like I’m coming down rather heavily on Samsung and not enough on the blogger. That is deliberate. If somebody can put up a credible defence for Samsung in this matter, I’d be happy to reconsider my position. In the absence of such material, I’m sticking to my above take.

I’ve always believed that in most aspects of life, it is far more important to try to be FAIR than to be “balanced”. The job of a judge is to pass a FAIR judgment based on the evidence presented to him. If the evidence is overwhelmingly in favor of one party, it would be a poor judgment if, in the interest of “balance”, he patronises the other party. It would be unfair on the aggrieved party - and a lesson wouldn't be learnt by the offending party. The only balance a judge needs to ensure, in my opinion, is that both parties are given an equal opportunity to state their cases.

So, though I'm not a judge (I'm not even in that profession!), this is the principle I adopt in my thinking and writing. Yes, fairness is a matter of opinion, but then so is balance. So let’s leave the "balance" to our diets, our lifestyle and to our cricket/sports teams. 

Let's first try to be fair in what is often an unfair world.