From rumors to revenue loss: conspiracy theories threaten brand reputation

July 3, 2024 · READ

In an age of viral mis-and disinformation, social media has increasingly become a breeding ground for rumors and allegations targeting major brands. Once confined to the fringes of the internet, access to a global audience of like-minded individuals has propelled the growth of conspiracy theory influencers across mainstream and alt-tech social platforms. These influencers are capable of turning innocuous brand logos, statements made by senior executives and marketing campaigns into fuel for outlandish conspiracies that spread like wildfire across the platform landscape.

From labeling COVID-19 vaccines bioweapons to accusations of a furniture brand engaging in child trafficking, conspiracy theories targeting brands can take many forms. They may involve unsubstantiated accusations of brands engaging in unethical practices, nefarious and clandestine operations or connect brands to broader conspiratorial narratives such as opposition to vaccines or climate denialism.

The viral nature of the online ecosystem means that false speculation can spread rapidly, often outpacing the dissemination of fact-checks or accurate information by the affected brand.

Why are brands in the crosshairs?

  • Popularity and Reach: Major brands with significant public presence are often ideal targets for conspiracy theorists attempting to go viral on social media platforms. The ubiquity of these brands in the everyday life of consumers across the globe mean that conspiracy theorists referencing their name or logo is likely to resonate with a wider cross-section of users online.
  • Cultural Significance: Whether it’s multinationals like Coca-Cola or McDonald’s that are recognized worldwide, or luxury fashion and sportswear brands like Balenciaga and Adidas that hold cultural significance, successful brands often represent more than just products – they embody lifestyles and values. These values can be targeted by conspiracy theorists who are often projecting their anxieties and distrust of social, political and cultural changes onto major brands.
  • Adverse events and incidents: Specific adverse events or incidents involving major brands can also provide fodder for new conspiracies by fringe or anti-establishment voices on social media. In particular, product recalls, accidents, scandals involving senior executives or brand ambassadors and negative commentary from ex-employees can all serve as ammunition for baseless speculation about hidden motives or cover ups amplified across social media platforms.

Once a salacious rumor gains traction, it can leave brands vulnerable to coordinated activity from interest-driven actors who may bombard and disrupt the brands owned-and managed online communities with spam, profanity and targeted hashtags. In this manner, association with viral conspiracies not only threatens revenue and brand reputation but also complicates communication strategies and crisis management for brands caught up in the digital cross-fire.

Another popular post promoting conspiracy theories that allege brands are involved in child trafficking.

Conspiracy theories targeting brands on social media can have adverse impact on brand reputation.

Examples of posts alleging brands and brand ambassadors were part of nefarious clandestine operations on social media.

 

Show me the money

Similar to scammers engaging in clickbait or spam campaigns online, many conspiracy theorists’ influencers are also driven by financial gain. Amassing a large audience of like-minded users on social media can prove to be a lucrative source of income.

An investigation into the online funding strategies of conspiracy and hate groups in the US by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue and the Global Disinformation Index found that revenue gained through selling merchandise through online retail was one of the most common funding sources for fringe and anti-establishment organizations.

Further analysis by the Brookings Institute found that the “complex ecosystem of online commerce makes it comparable easy for individuals looking to sell merchandise related to conspiracy theories” adding that this phenomenon was “exacerbated by the fusion of conspiratorial content with lifestyle branding on social media platforms and e-commerce sites”.

Many conspiracy theorist influencers on social media are driven by financial gain.

Like those engaging in clickbait or spam, many conspiracy theorist influencers are driven by financial gain.

As a measure of this new lucrative conspiracy-for-profit industry, a report published by the Center for Counter Digital Hate (CCDH) in 2020 estimated that the online marketplace for anti-vaxx content across social platforms was generating nearly $1 billion in revenue.

Conspiracy theorist influencers target reputable brands around the covid19 pandemic.

Adverse events such as the COVID19 pandemic can also serve as fuel for conspiracy theories targeting brands on social media.

Conspiracies erode brand reputation

Unfortunately, conspiratorial beliefs appear to be rising among key markets and demographics in Western democracies such as the UK and the US. A June 2023 survey conducted by the Policy Institute at King’s College London examining the prevalence of conspiracy belief amongst the UK citizens found that one-third of respondents agreed that various conspiracy theories around COVID-19 vaccines, 15-minute cities, and cost of living crisis were “probably or definitely true”.

Rising belief in conspiracy theories among consumers in the uk pose growing risk for brand reputation.

A similar survey conducted by CCDH measuring the popularity of conspiracy theories across the US citizens found that nearly half of all respondents agreed with at least four conspiracy statements, with 51% of adults expressing agreement with conspiracies related to the “deep state”. This analysis also found that teens aged 13-17 expressed higher levels of agreement with every statement compared to the adults, with conspiracies about vaccines and the “deep state” gaining the most support among the surveyed group.

A recent survey found that 51% of individuals agreed with conspiracy theories related to the "deep state" in the us.

The rise of conspiratorial beliefs among consumers can also exert a negative influence on their purchasing habits. A 2023 research study published in the Journal of Business Research found that consumers who believe a brand is involved in a conspiracy go on to “perceive the brand as having a Machiavellian personality, which decreases their trust and purchase intentions”.

A research study published in the journal of business research found that consumers belief in conspiracy theories negatively affected brand reputation.

Making matters worse the researchers also found that this effect was most powerful among consumers subscribing to beliefs regarding brands associated with the presence of a powerful “Other” such as “The Great Reset” or “deep state” narratives leading such individuals to “exhibit lower purchase intentions towards that brand”.

A recent study found that belief in conspiracy theories on social media can have a negative impact on purchase intentions towards a brand.

Research has found that belief in conspiracy theories can have a negative impact of purchase intentions towards a brand.

Protect your brand social media conspiracies

Given the serious commercial and reputational implications of being associated with conspiracy theories, it is crucial for brands to develop robust strategies to manage and mitigate this novel threat. Some key steps that brands can take include:

  • Proactive Monitoring: Major brands should partner with organizations providing brand equity protection and moderation solutions that will allow them to track and review mentions of the brand among fringe, conspiratorial and anti-establishment communities operating across the diverse platform landscape. A robust digital risk detection strategy will also enable the early detection of potential threats to brand reputation, amplified across the brand’s owned and managed communities on social media.
  • Crisis Communication Plan: Developing a crisis communication plan that includes protocols for addressing mis-and disinformation and conspiracy theories is essential. Having a well-thought-out strategy for response can help brands respond swiftly to false and conspiratorial narratives with clear, detailed and factual information. Brands should utilize multiple social channels to disseminate this corrective information, including their official social media accounts, press releases, partnerships with credible media outlets and social media influencers.
  • Cultivate Online Communities: Engaging constructively with their customers can allow brands to foster a loyal community of individuals who can act as authentic brand advocates across social media platforms. These consumer advocates can help counter misinformation and conspiracy theories targeting the brand by sharing positive experiences and accurate information instead. Encouraging the employees at the brand to also post positively about their work experiences and interactions at the brand can also boost credibility and trustworthiness among new customers online.

Next steps

The impact of conspiracy theories targeting brand reputation across social media can be severe. Even unfounded allegations can lead to a significant loss of consumer trust. In extreme cases, unsuspecting brands who found themselves caught up in the digital maelstrom of a viral conspiracy have faced boycotts, decreased sales, and long-term damage to their brand reputation.

Resolver provides a suite of comprehensive brand equity protection solutions designed to empower and protect your brands’ reputation with real-time monitoring of online conversations, identification of emerging risks and conspiracy narratives and critical alert delivery across channels for proactive crisis management.

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