The Negatives of Going Viral

Story: Trevor Bell and Berkley Iden

July 26, 2013

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As we alluded to in an earlier blog post, content that “goes viral” can capture the attention of consumers and stimulate engagement. There are, however, negative effects that can arise from content going viral. One example of interest comes in the form of a popular food chain revealing some disturbing employee behavior which caused detrimental effects.

In 2009, two of Domino's employees filmed a prank in the kitchen and posted it online. The video went viral and in only a few days had over a million views. The video, which was posted on YouTube, showed one employee in Conover, North Carolina, preparing food for delivery, where he placed the cheese in his nose, placed nasal mucus on a sandwich and committed other unsanitary acts, while the other employee filmed and narrated the action. The two employees were immediately terminated and faced felony charges.

Despite the negative public reaction to the video, the company did not immediately respond in the hopes that the incident would simply blow over. Not surprisingly, however, the strong backlash to the video created a social media buzz that tarnished the brand. Domino's was then required to respond to the video and negative claims, and then create a strategy to turn the crisis around and restore positive attitudes toward the brand.

On the company's website, a corporate apology was issued, and Domino's employees were asked to tweet the link to their personal Twitter accounts to help further the reach through social media. Domino's additionally launched another Twitter account, @dpzinfo, to clarify that the video was an isolated incident and that it was not a company-wide problem. Also, president of Domino's, Patrick Doyle, issued an apology on YouTube which promised a new hiring process, corporate re-evaluation and a way to positively respond to customers.

To combat the criticism it had received, Domino's launched a new public relations campaign, the “Pizza Turnaround” in 2010, which basically criticized the company and took customer's negative feedback to heart. Television ads featured focus group interviews that showed individuals describing the pizza as rubbery and the sauce as ketchup. Then, the ads showed high-level executives such as Doyle and senior pizza chefs admitting to the shortcomings, with outright promises to fix the error. Domino's also incorporated a survey on their company website along with a tool that estimated the customer's pizza delivery time. Customer feedback was monitored through social media platforms, as well as multiple focus groups with real Domino's customers. Domino's used the negative comments from customers to improve their recipes and deliver a product that customers desired. Based on research regarding the negative feelings surrounding the product, Domino's entirely changed the recipe. Following the self-deprecating campaign, there was significant increase in sales with a 14.3% increase in first-quarter same-store sales. While risky and uncommon in today's market, the strategy to acknowledge the company's faults and openly fix the errors proved to be an effective one. Even today, Domino's remains prominent in the pizza industry.

While there are other incidents of viral content damaging the reputation of a brand, Domino's displayed the correct steps in reversing these effects. Because Domino's made the effort to rebuild their brand and improve not only the quality of their pizza but customer satisfaction, the campaign was a huge success. Domino's was able to reinvent their brand as one that is transparent and open to new ideas from their customers because they wanted to put the customers first. They took a major crisis that could have completely ruined the company's brand image forever, and turned it around and made changes by taking huge risks that paid off in the end. Thus, if a brand does have negative content that goes viral, adopting a strategy in which the company is open, accountable and transparent is critical in effectively addressing the problem.