Singtel is in hot soup after stirring trouble using a smear marketing campaign on social media using influential bloggers. Telecommunication rivals Starhub and M1 are now exploring possible legal actions against Singtel.
The Singapore-based telecommunications company hired influencer marketing company Gushcloud in June 2014 for a marketing program targeting the youth segment of mobile device users.
Singtel commissioned Gushcloud to engage social media influencers such as bloggers to badmouth Starhub and M1 by making complaints about their rivals' services and at the same time promote Singtel's youth mobile plan.
Not only did Singtel resort to using underhanded methods of marketing by hiring a seedy marketing firm to carry out their dirty work, they failed to address the gravity of the issue and consequences by choosing to remain tight-lipped about this situation.
A statement from Johan Buse, Singtel’s vice-president of consumer marketing to the press is as follows:
“As an organisation, we maintain high marketing standards and do not condone negative campaigns or publicity against any individuals or organisations. Our focus has always been on the strength and differentiators of our products and services.
“We apologise for this isolated incident. We will emphasise to our staff and agencies our marketing standards and the importance of adhering to industry guidelines including the Singapore Code of Advertising Practice."
Mr Buse need not emphasise the importance of adhering to industry guidelines to his staff at Singtel and its agencies if they had already possessed the integrity and knowledge of marketing ethics in the first place.
Examining The Reason Why Singtel Gave the Green Light for A Smear Campaign
In a statement issued to the media on Tuesday (March 17), Singtel's vice-president of Consumer Marketing Johan Buse, said investigations revealed that staff who worked with Gushcloud on the marketing campaign in June last year "did not adhere to Singtel's marketing standards." - Channel News Asia, March 2015
Singtel's VP of Consumer Marketing or another senior executive could not have been unaware of this campaign. In fact, a senior marketing executive should have approved the campaign before allowing it to run.
Mr Buse also said that the smear campaign was a "niche" one, "targeted at a narrow customer segment" when it was clearly targeted at a large segment of youths in Singapore.
Singtel issued vague details as to who was the person or which people were responsible for approving the smear campaign. Instead, they pushed all the blame to "a marketing staff" which to date no one knows what happened to that particular member of staff.
Hiring Non-marketing professionals
The VP of Consumer Marketing at SingTel and Gushcloud probably have had no formal background in marketing. They were not trained marketing professionals and studied vastly different disciplines from marketing communications. For example, the founders of viral marketing agency Gushcloud have degrees in business and science which are unrelated to marketing.
SingTel's marketing executive Mr Buse did not reveal his educational qualifications and is a European expat who does not speak Mandarin, Malay, Tamil or other local/ regional Asian languages. His background looks more of a telco business/ product person than a marketing professional.
In reference to a consumer complaint on Singtel's Facebook page that drew 12,000 likes in two hours, Mr Buse said:
“If you start a dialogue, if you respond in a personalised manner, customers will understand and the situation can be demystified,” he explained.
“When you get bad PR, the important thing is to keep the customer informed. Our customer service team has been working overnight to give people advice on our data bundle.” (Mr Buse as quoted by Mumbrella Asia during an APPIES speech in August 2013)
The reverse of what Mr Buse addressed in his speech could be said about his response to the current situation where Singtel is gathering plenty of bad press yet prefers to keep mum about the issue instead.
In conclusion, if you put people who are unfamiliar with the simple core principles of marketing in charge of your brand marketing, this is what happens.
SingTel wanted to change their brand identity after a survey in 2011 where consumers touted them as "stiff, boring, arrogant, robotic, cold and unfriendly".
Mr Bose said "We found that Singaporeans love Google, Apple, Shangri-La and Singapore Airlines. But not us.” (Mumbrella Asia, August 2013)
To date, it seems that the company has only managed to present change on the surface level. Internally, they are still a traditional company hiring business and telco heads with no marketing qualifications to lead their consumer marketing department.
Hokey Singapore viral marketing agency Gushcloud
Gushcloud who engages social media influencers such as bloggers for marketing campaigns has a questionable quality of staff who lack the core marketing principles and professionalism enough to provide such ill advice to their client resulting in the launch of an unethical smear campaign where both their client and themselves have plenty to answer for.
Worse still, after making a mistake, Gushcloud still appears unapologetic and tries to shift some blame to blogger Xiaxue that ratted them out, saying it "hurts the industry".
Conversely, Xiaxue would now appear to have more integrity and credibility than Singtel and Gush Cloud.
The inability to fully admit one's mistake and resorting to the blame game just demonstrates that the management and communication team at both Gush Cloud and Singtel failed to understand what they did was wrong and are just paying lip service to the public - apologising for the sake of apologising.
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