Chobani’s Tourette’s gaffe offers cautionary tale

The yogurt maker offends in an attempt to humanize its brand. Three ways for your brand to avoid making a similar mistake.

My buddy Matt Sullivan read an article on Fast Company about how Chobani uses Pinterest, and he thought I might want to check it out. In the article, Chobani’s Digital Communications Manager, Emily Schildt, talked about how fanatical people can be when they engage with Chobani on social media. She said:

“We call it ‘flavor Turettes’ in-house,” she quips. “We get about a tweet per minute, and I would say 50 percent are about our newest flavor, apple cinnamon.”

That really appeared in Fast Company.

I wouldn’t call myself easily offended but I was surprised to see that when speaking on behalf of Chobani, Schildt revealed that the company internally refers to its Facebook page this way. This is something you want to keep in-house—or not do at all.

But it didn’t end there. @Chobani saw that Sullivan sent me the link on Twitter decided to hop in our conversation with the following tweet:

That sound you just heard? That was Chobani falling in the hole it dug for itself.

This post isn’t meant to jump on Chobani. The company made a mistake and apologized for it, just like every company is prone to make mistakes when it enters a new territory. But that’s the point. We’re all prone to these mistakes, and some of us won’t be as easily forgiven as an established brand like Chobani.

What can you do to avoid mistakes instead of bulldozing right into them? These three things:

1. Show people you’re human.

We hear all the time how social media allows us to put a human face on our business, but most brands have absolutely no idea how to do that. It sounds great when you talk to your higher-ups, but what does human business really mean for your brand? What is it going to do for you?

To me, being human means strategically letting customers see what’s weird and authentic about you. Pick what’s real, relevant and appropriate for your audience and serve it to them.

You probably want an example.

How about Buckley’s? Buckley’s is a Canadian cough syrup I discovered in another Fast Company article. In the article, Steve Jones wrote about how Buckley’s found an unlikely way to stand out in its market. Rather than hide, sugarcoat or make excuses for people’s complaints that the cough syrup tastes bad, Buckley’s tackled the issue head-on.

The product’s slogan? “It tastes awful. And it works.”

That’s actually the product’s slogan, and it’s effective. Buckley’s doesn’t target everyone who is sick—it targets adults who are sick and need some tough love.

The company found a relevant, real and appropriate way to market itself in a crowded market. Most cough syrups taste pretty awful, but Buckley’s is the only one I know to admit it, use it, and not apologize for it.

Buckley’s isn’t perfect, but you’re not either. The company’s honesty makes it easier for customers to trust the brand.

2. Create a company-wide social media policy, and stick to it.

Decide how your company should use social media and create guidelines that employees can use.

Sullivan already wrote about how companies shouldn’t make Tourette’s jokes on social media. He’s obviously right, but this is exactly what happens when you attempt to “wing” social media or engage without a clear purpose or idea of your company voice.

Take time to iron out these details before your employees go a little too far or make a comment they should have saved for the company IM instead of the company’s Twitter handle.

When you write a corporate social media policy, you have the opportunity to ask and educate your staff on important “Where is the line?” questions before a problematic situation occurs. Here are some important questions every business should ask when they develop their own corporate social media plans:

  • Why are we participating in social media?
  • How does social media integrate into employees’ existing roles?
  • Which employees will participate and what will their roles be?
  • What sites should they engage on?
  • What are best practices for engagement?
  • How should we handle common issues?

The best way to avoid a horrible mistake is to teach employees how to drive the car before they get in it—not after they crash.

3. Define what “being human” is not.

You never want to tell an employee he has full permission to “be weird” and “human” when he speaks in the voice of your brand; he won’t know what that means. You also can’t tell him to use common sense because, well, not everyone was born with it.

When you lay out the ground rules for what you expect from your team on social media, explain what “being human” does not mean. Employees should not:

  • Be disrespectful.
  • Be offensive.
  • Be rude or difficult to deal with.
  • Be viciously snarky.
  • Talk to a customer like they’re both drunk at the bar.
  • Share every thought that enters their heads.

This sounds like stuff everyone on your team should already know, right? Well, they might not, and you don’t want stupidity to bring down your company.

Social media helps all of us show our customers more of our brands, but that doesn’t mean you should let everything hang out. Have a vision, create a plan, and put it into action. Your customers are listening. Be aware of what you tell them.

Lisa Barone is the chief branding officer of Outspoken Media, where a version of this article originally ran. She’s also very active on Twitter, much to the dismay of the rest of the world.

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