Ray Lewis and Brand Terrorists: using social media and open data to prevent brand insurgencies


NFL players have brands. Many players will—or at least should—spend top dollar to groom their image and communications carefully. As the 2012 season wrapped up, one of the most talked about “brands” was that of retiring Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis. A cursory examination of the Ray Lewis brand shows that it is an admired brand that has largely recovered from the negative impact due to his role in a January 2000 fight that led to the deaths of two people in Atlanta.

Most sports analysts and commentators agree that Lewis is a gimme for the Hall of Fame. So with Lewis’s retirement, if this were the dark ages before the Internet, Twitter, FB, etc., the story would end there, with the fairytale ending of a Super Bowl victory to close out a spectacular NFL career, the dark spot from 13 years ago now largely forgotten but to a few. Some stories—like this one, and this one—might go so far as to discuss the rehabilitation of Ray Lewis’s image and even how it serves as a model for others in a reputational quandaries.

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But in today’s world of constant, omnidirectional communications, people with a “black spot” in their brand history have a harder time getting away from it. Plenty of people will spend their time and energy to find something to tear down your brand—no matter what the real story is, how much you have matured, or whatever amends you have made.

These people are called “Brand Terrorists.”

What’s a brand terrorist? A brand terrorist is the person who does not just hold a negative opinion of you, but starts negative conversations about your brand. Controlling or reducing the intensity of communications from brand terrorists is important to reputation management, ensuring that their causes and complaints do not corrupt the rest of your customer base.

Understand the nature of the threat

Controlling a brand insurgency—like approaching any problem—begins with understanding the nature of the problem. Is it a large base of negativity? Is it a small but intense group? Or maybe people both love and hate you at the same time? What drives the brand terrorists’ hatred, and is there a receptive audience for it? What are their strongest levers for affecting opinion change about your brand with their audience (since you usually can’t affect them directly)?

In some cases, it’s important also to look at data over time, not just captured in a snapshot. Data over time paints a clearer picture of what’s really at work. You can do this with multiple tracking surveys, a series of focus groups before and after (even during) events, or (as we’ve done here) collecting traffic on Twitter. It isn’t always possible to get a backwards-looking view of public opinion when you’re starting from Day 1, but using various social media tools and all the open data out there, you can do more to gain insights than previously possible.

With Ray Lewis, for example, if you were only to look at the conversation post-retirement, you would see that most of it is positive.

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Coupled with the measure of positive media we saw earlier, one might be tempted to think that, overall, the brand is in good shape. However, once you move past the snapshot and go beyond the retirement announcement all the way up to the Super Bowl, it becomes clear there is risk to the Ray Lewis brand.

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Using an analysis over a longer period, you will see that the influence of the negative voices about Ray Lewis increases as a part of the overall conversation. This is the chart of a brand under attack.

Taking on the threat

In order to mitigate the influence of the brand terrorists, we dig into the data to find the key drivers of their attack. In this case, we broke it into four broad categories that describe the overwhelming majority of tweets: personal (or undefined) dislike, authenticity critiques, “murder” allegations, and deer antler comments (based on a report that Ray Lewis used antler spray-based performance enhancing drugs).

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Armed with this analysis, it’s clear that the negative driver (by far) is the murder accusation. Despite being a 13-year old story and having gone through the judicial process at that time, this continues to drive hatred for Lewis, more than anything else. As the playoffs march on (and the Lewis-led Ravens knock teams out of contention), we see an increase in personal animosity, mostly based on team allegiances.

From here, we can identify the primary brand terrorists and develop a plan to confront them. It is not our intention to use this space to “out” Lewis haters (to be fair, they’re already “out” if they’re broadcasting on Twitter). But say, for example, we are a campaign without the resources necessary to develop a micro-targeted campaign based on individual Twitter users and their followers. We can still look to a regional strategy. For Ray Lewis, if he’s looking to do some community outreach to reduce the hate and grow the love, it may be useful to look at different cities:

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Unsurprisingly, Cleveland (home of the Browns, another blue-collar AFC team) is not a Lewis-friendly town. A look at the individual tweets shows some rather extreme intensity to the Cleveland animosity. Chicago (home of the Bears, a non-rival NFC team), on the other hand, while still below average positivity, is not nearly as intensely negative.

If we were writing the Ray Lewis brand strategy, then, we may want him to focus on a community like Chicago, where they may be more willing to listen to his message than a Cleveland, where most of the “haters” are going to be rather unreachable.

The key is not to silence the brand terrorists—the key is to drain the swamp so their criticism doesn’t have a receptive audience.


This post was written by GQR Senior Associate John Garrett, Vice President, Chief Data Scientist Masa Aida, and Analyst Pablo Kenney.