In a promotional gimmick, Marks and Spencer last week launched an LGBT sandwich.
The rainbow packaging made clear that the abbreviation was not merely referring to its ingredients: lettuce, guacamole, bacon and tomato.
For a quintessentially middle-England brand, the positioning was quite clever: just risky enough to draw attention and some predictable outrage from reactionary pundits — “Gay sandwiches! Whatever next?”
But what happened next showed the difficulties that companies now have in controlling their message. An apparent screenshot of a Facebook exchange showed customers complaining about the sandwich — and M&S social media staff responding by calling them “bigots” and “pricks”.
Uncontrolled social media postings are exploding as a problem for companies. The corporate tweeters that receive most attention are not carefully calibrated marketing messages but those from a handful of prominent chief executives, led by Tesla’s Elon Musk. His unmediated outbursts have helped him promote his electric car company and landed him in trouble with the Securities and Exchange Commission.
But lower-level posters are even riskier. Last month JPMorgan Chase was accused of “poor shaming” after its social media team tweeted: “You: why is my balance so low?; Bank account: make coffee at home.”
Worse was the 2011 tweet from an official account of Chrysler, the US carmaker, complaining that Detroit may be the Motor City but “no one here knows how to f***ing drive”. The Twitter account had been in the hands of an outside agency, which was then fired.
Still more damaging is the possibility of offensive posts from internal staff, such as the Vodafone employee who in 2010 used the telecoms company’s Twitter account for a homophobic outburst.
This is the risk of handing control of corporate brands to edgy social media posters in the quest to sound cool, authentic and relevant to younger customers.
But there is a twist in the sandwich story. According to M&S, the interaction between employees and customers was fake. It was mocked up and posted on social media by someone else. You can steer your brand expertly but still suffer when someone steals it.
It seems unfair. It is also the catalyst for what surely will become a vast industry devoted to mitigating social media damage, whether inflicted by renegade staff, outside agencies or malicious third parties.
ZeroFOX, one such company, has raised more than $80m from venture capital investors, offering to guard against malicious social media attacks and mop up afterwards for those that get through.
Zack Allen, director of threat operations at ZeroFOX, says his staff often work with marketing teams “where their bosses are telling them, ‘You need to protect our brands: if someone gets hacked, it’s on you.’”
To deal with the M&S sandwich debacle, ZeroFOX would have worked to take down the fake postings. “One of our biggest use cases is impersonation,” says Mr Allen. “We see that in almost 50 per cent of the attacks that we stop.”
It does not really matter how effective these solutions are. The providers will get paid because chief executives and boards are increasingly worried, prompting marketing and security teams to throw more money at the problem.
Having built the internet companies that spawned the virus, Silicon Valley now has an opportunity to supply the antidote.
Get alerts on Marks & Spencer Group PLC when a new story is published