BEIJING: Brand owners in China must ensure they are prepared to respond to negative online buzz from the country's growing microblog audience, a study has argued.

Ogilvy & Mather and CIC, both units of WPP Group, said in a new report that there are currently 250m microblog users in China, a 297% increase on an annual basis.

To determine the corporate events generating the most buzz in 2011, they looked at trending topics on the microblogs run by Sina and Tencent, two of the category's leading players, and at which incidents garnered the most mainstream media coverage.

Among the main "brand crises" of last year was the discovery that certain sports drinks, including some manufactured by Yu Shen Spice Com, contained DEHP, a carcinogenic plastic polymer. This event led to 1.5m microblog posts and 44,500 reports across traditional media.

Meanwhile, Mengniu, the dairy group, was the subject of 903,952 microblog comments and 16,400 formal news pieces for selling tainted milk.

These figures also reached 632,160 and 73,800 respectively for Shuanghui selling pork products that included an illegal additive.

Da Vinci Furniture, a high-end manufacturer that claimed its offerings were made in Italy, also saw 605,376 microblog posts and 71,900 media reports after it was revealed that the firm's goods were actually produced in China.

Siemens, the German electronics specialist, was the first company to see a brand crisis begin with microblog users, after consumers complained that a door on one of its fridge models did not close properly. This fault prompted 396,524 comments in all, but did not feature in the media top ten.

Equally, allegations that Coca-Cola's orange juice contained fungicide resulted in 318,956 posts online, although it did not pick up as much mainstream media interest.

Kumho Tires also saw 243,308 comments on Sina and Tencent's microblogs regarding negative quality perceptions, alongside 32,600 items in traditional media outlets. A scandal linked to firms paying for better ratings on Baidu, the search engine, scored 243,308 and 18,900 in turn here.

"It is not only about increasing the number of fans on your Weibo," Debby Cheung, president, Ogilvy & Mather Shanghai. "The speed and emotional ferocity with which microblog crises strike, often seemingly from 'nowhere', is very alarming to most companies, so early preparation is key."

But not all controversies stirred web users. A vehicle recall by automaker Honda was mentioned in 46,900 media articles, and Ajisen, the food maker that made misleading claims about its soup recipe, was in 19,100.

Despite all of this traditional media coverage, neither faced a major microblog backlash.

Data sourced from Ogilvy & Mather; additional content by Warc staff