Revolutionary Measures

Taxing times for tech companies

English: Paying the Tax (The Tax Collector) oi...

Very few of us like paying tax, but there’s a fine line between legitimately reducing your tax bill and actively avoiding paying the tax that is due. And at a time of austerity where everyone is tightening their belts, there’s obviously a push by governments to close loopholes and maximise the revenues they receive.

Given their high profile and obvious success Starbucks and Amazon have both been the subject of widespread condemnation of their tax avoidance methods, and I’ve covered Starbucks inept PR response in a previous blog. Google was up before a House of Commons Select Committee last week (for the second time), backing up its claims that, despite revenue of £3 billion in the UK, all its advertising sales actually take place in the lower tax environment of Ireland. Google boss Eric Schmidt has countered that the company invests heavily in the UK with its profits, including spending £1 billion on a new HQ that he estimates will raise £80m per year in employment taxes and £50m in stamp duty.

Apple is the next company caught in the public spotlight, with CEO Tim Cook appearing before a US Senate committee that had accused it of ‘being among America’s largest tax avoiders’. Meanwhile, the loophole that sees Amazon and other big US ecommerce companies avoid paying local sales taxes is being challenged by a new law passing through Congress, with estimates of between $12 and $23 billion extra being collected.

Given the close links between Google and UK politicians (Ed Miliband is appearing at a Google event this week and Schmidt is expected to meet David Cameron on his current UK trip), the cynical view is that this is a lot of sound and fury, signifying nothing. But it does create an image problem for the companies involved, particularly at a time when we’re all meant to be in it together.

Obviously the most popular thing for companies to do would be to re-organise their tax affairs so that they meet the spirit as well as the letter of the law. But that’s not likely to happen given the enormous sums at stake. Instead expect increased calls for global tax reform (so that the organisations involved don’t have to operate the way they are currently ‘forced’ to) and a slew of feel good announcements that demonstrate the level of investment and support for the UK economy by the companies concerned. Being ultra cynical perhaps the whole tax situation explains the huge support by big tech companies for Tech City – it is simply an elaborate way of diverting attention from their financial affairs…………..

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May 22, 2013 Posted by | Marketing, PR, Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Starbucking up social media

Starbucks Logo

Even before their tax debacle I’ve never been a fan of Starbucks – bland coffee, relentless happiness and demanding my name before deigning to serve me have all driven me elsewhere.

But I was staggered at their ineptitude when it comes to social media. Despite being ranked as the best loved brand on social media in the US, they’ve not quite grasped that not paying millions in tax isn’t going to endear them to people here. Social media popularity fell dramatically when the true story of its tax affairs came out in October and a blog post from chairman, president and CEO, Howard Schultz, defending the company made little difference (a tip Howard – if you want British people to believe you are ‘honoured to serve them’, use the British spelling of the word.)

So what do you do if you’re at the centre of such a firestorm of criticism, particularly via social media? I’d recommend changing behaviour and reaching out to engage with people. Yet, instead the coffee giant decided to run a scheduled Twitter hashtag campaign #spreadthecheer. However, like McDonalds and Waitrose in the past, it failed to see how easily this could be hijacked and as I write #spreadthecheerPRFail is trending on Twitter. The more pleasant tweets push the merits of independent coffee shops, while the most aggressive demand that they ‘Pay your f*cking taxes’. And to make matters even worse the company installed an unmoderated Twitter wall at the Natural History Museum’s ice rink, leading to the automatic projection of abusive messages, allegedly through a malfunction of the profanity filter.

Starbucks has got its marketing, social media and ethical stance very, very wrong. And while it is facing a social media firestorm it has not helped its cause – in fact through #spreadthecheer and Howard Schultz’s blog it has soaked itself in petrol and handed matches to the mob.

But Starbucks isn’t the only brand to completely underestimate that if pushed far enough people will complain – and with social media complaints can reach critical mass very quickly and turn into a comprehensive campaign against an organisation.

This means it is time for brands (particularly ones that claim to be ethical and friendly) to re-adjust their marketing. The time of one way marketing to passive users is over. As my erstwhile colleagues Steve Earl and Stephen Waddington pointed out in their book Brand Anarchy, “Reputation is not just under siege, the ramparts have been utterly breached.” A chilling threat to some companies but also a wake up call to marketers and brands – now you need to listen, learn and engage with customers, not refuse to serve them if they won’t give you their name.

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December 19, 2012 Posted by | Marketing, PR, Social Media | , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments