NEW YORK -- Twitter's @Hyundai page contains a collection of 140-character blasts in English and Korean about oysters, cell phones and the Yankees. Clicking on a profile photo reveals a collage of scantily clad ladies bearing cleavage and more, and a caption saying, "Have a Lustful Day."
The site, of course, is not maintained by the Korean automaker. Someone chose the username before Hyundai began tweeting.
After having contacted the social-media site's headquarters repeatedly to evict the squatter without success, the frustrated automaker has gone so far as to contemplate legal action.
"They simply haven't responded to requests," said Chris Hosford, a spokesman for Hyundai Motor America. "Our brand name is extremely important to us. ... We're very disappointed that Twitter has shown no interest in protecting brand names."
Unable to use its preferred account name, the company has resorted to sending out official company tweets from @HyundaiNews.
Hyundai is far from the only marketer that's been beat to the tweet. A quick survey of Twitter accounts for the top 100 national advertisers, as ranked by Advertising Age's Data Center, shows that surprisingly few have ownership of the Twitter usernames that correspond to the names of their companies or their brands.
The multinational corporations whose Twitter accounts are being squatted upon include General Motors Co., General Electric, Diageo, Coty, Comcast, Eli Lilly, Kellogg Co., MasterCard, Nestle and Walt Disney.
No special status for businesses
While Twitter has awarded celebrities like Ashton Kutcher and Oprah a special "verified account" status, marketers have not been granted such badges, posing a huge problem for those who failed to register their brands early enough. It's also bad for Twitter, which until now has been a free service but is trying to find ways to turn a profit with businesses.
Twitter has hinted heavily that a "Twitter Pro" service is coming, figuring this issue for marketers and trademarked brands will be an increasing headache.
"We understand brands' frustration when it comes to account verification. We are working on ways to make the process easier and faster,” said Anamitra Banerji, Twitter's head of commercial products. “Given the volume of requests we receive, sometimes it might take a little while to close requests, but we are trying to improve that too."
The social-media service, Banerji said, is working with business owners to make sure they own their trademarks and brand names on Twitter. “Our terms of service doesn't allow name-squatting or impersonation,” he said.
In the meantime, companies like Volkswagen of America continue to use accounts they’ve developed with usernames that contain at least some of their name.
"We have an interest in Twitter and using it as a significant part of our social-media campaign as we move into 2010," said Brian Chee, manager of digital marketing for Volkswagen of America. But right now the automaker is tweeting under the account @vwcares, because the handles @vw and @volkswagen are both taken.
One company’s success
A few major marketers have had some luck winning back their rightful Twitter usernames. In March 2008, Home Depot decided it wanted a presence on the site. But when the company went to register its name, it found someone else had already snapped up @HomeDepot, although the person wasn’t tweeting.
"There it was, big and empty, and I said, 'Uh-oh, what if we want to use this channel someday?'" recalled Sarah Molinari, corporate communications manager.
The company signed up for @TheHomeDepot instead, but in the meantime alerted Twitter it also wanted @HomeDepot.
"They worked with us to give us control of Twitter.com/HomeDepot," Molinari said, but it took a full year.
Being on Twitter isn't a required part of any company's communications strategy. But at a time when most marketers’ budgets are squeezed, it's hard to imagine passing up on a chance to engage consumers for free. After all, 20 million people visit Twitter in a given month, according to ComScore data.
All those visitors also make it important to ensure that no one outside a company wields the power to send out communications on the firm's behalf.
Not all marketers are ruffled, though. Pfizer doesn't own the handle @Pfizer, and a mystery tweeter is regularly tweeting updates about the company. Ray Kerins, a Pfizer spokesman, says the company isn't planning to take any action.
"We are obviously watching any site that discusses our company or our products," Kerins said. "We're going to continue to watch. These social communities are actually very self-policing."
Abbey Klaassen contributed to this report