Big business watch out. The underdog bites back

It will have escaped few people's attention that drinks giant Diageo got itself into a spot of bother last week. It was a classic David v. Goliath story, only tweaked for the internet age.

For those who missed it, micro brewery BrewDog had expected to take the trophy for Bar Operator of the Year award at a dinner, organised by the British Institute of Innkeeping Scotland. The independent judging panel had made their decision and the trophy had even been engraved with BrewDog's name.

However, a representative from event sponsors Diageo arrived and spoiled the party, threatening to pull future sponsorship unless the award was given to another winner. The reasoning behind this is hazy, but apparently the issue was BrewDog did not hold membership of the Portman Group, the industry body that promotes responsible drinking. No matter, the award was handed to someone else.

In the past, before the advance of Twitter and blogging, BrewDog would have been upset, outraged even, but the company would probably have been resigned to the fact that there was nothing they could do. After all, bullying by the big boys was not an unusual occurrence.

But with the possibilities of social media, BrewDog, a five-year-old craft beer company, found itself in a great position to bite back. And it did. Founders James Watt and Martin Dickie wasted no time in taking to their blog and Twitter accusing the giant of dirty tricks. Soon Diageo was trending, for all the wrong reasons.

The big players should take note that they can no longer get away with bully boy behaviour. The problem for large companies lies in the vast number of customers; it is impossible to engage with them all.

There is much less of a risk to smaller companies like BrewDog; they know their customers, they understand what they want from them.  The reality for them is simple; if they don't engage with and listen to their customers they won't have a business to run for long.

Diageo is not the first company to feel the full force of the Twittersphere. Fitness centre chain LA Fitness recently faced the wrath of members who were unhappy with the less than flexible terms of their membership.

A couple had been locked into a two-year contract, but when the woman fell pregnant, the man was made redundant and they had to move  house, they tried to cancel their membership and was told they would be charged a £780 to cover the last 15 months of the contract.

The Guardian newspaper published an article about the couple's plight and soon social media users were writing angry statements on Twitter, many announcing that they were cancelling their gym membership in protest. LA Fitness announced - belatedly - that they were waiving all fees, but the damage had been done.

The gym chain was shamed into taking action rather than take control of the situation in a sensible way.

In reality the BrewDog episode is unlikely to cause Diageo any long-term harm, in fact they were super speedy in coming out with a grovelling apology for the "serious misjudgement". Put it this way, people will not stop downing pints of Guinness or shots of Smirnoff Vodka.

On the other hand a lot more people who'd never heard of BrewDog will be looking out for their products. The smaller, nimbler company skilfully turned the setback into a triumph and the PR value of the whole episode potentially outweighed getting the prize in the first place.

No doubt we'll see many more small businesses biting back on social media, just like BrewDog did.

But they too should remember that Twitter works both ways. It is a dream for small businesses wanting to promote themselves for free, it's brilliant to connect with customers, get your message out there and receive feedback from your customers. But when you get it wrong it can go very wrong, very quickly.

Quite simply, there is nowhere to hide on Twitter.

To find out more about Brewdog, click here.

Or you can follow them on Twitter, @Brewdog

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