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How to avoid your brand trending for all the wrong reasons

Oh Lord, please don’t let me be misunderstood. Nina Simone was the first to sing that song in 1964. Today there must be quite a few brand executives who’ll be quietly saying this little prayer at the start of a new marketing drive or ad campaign.

Because one slight error of judgement about the current mood and morals of today’s consumer markets and your marketing campaign is trending on social media for all the wrong reasons.

If you’re lucky, it won’t go any further than a painful but short-lived roasting. If you’re not so lucky, you’ll be the focus of a loud activist movement calling for all decent people to avoid your products or services like the plague.

Good intentions, risky business

No matter how well-intentioned brands and businesses may be in trying to adapt to the changing mood of the crowd, the risk of getting it wrong is ever-present. Good intentions are all well and good, but it is wise to keep asking yourself: will the way we implement these intentions make us look truly honest and deeply involved with the world around us, or will we be seen as a brand that only aims to please by jumping on every passing bandwagon?

The ranks of the woke are swelling around the world and they are becoming a force to be reckoned with. They have quivering, sensitive antennae for greenwashing and, indeed, woke-washing. They have inherently suspicious minds and, sadly, they have been disappointed often enough by brands and businesses to the point that they have developed a sixth sense for spin-doctor BS or stories that sound too good to be true.

It is a consequence of the way internet has given everyone the ability to get to the bottom of what goes on behind closed doors. If there’s anything fishy or dodgy afoot, it’s just a matter of time before it splashes out across the entire social media ecosystem. Faking good behaviour for any length of time has become impossible. As a result, people have become so distrustful that it is increasingly hard to convince them that what they see and hear from politicians, institutions, news media and, of course, brands has anything more than the vaguest connection with the truth.

Purpose under scrutiny

Whether it’s the recently acquired ease of transparency or simply a generational shift away from cynicism, there’s no denying that people are becoming more and more interested in social causes. Some even go so far as to demand that the wrongs of the past be righted and actively seek out and support brands whose values align with their own. They are finely tuned to what businesses and brands have to offer in terms of sustainability or active engagement with worthwhile social causes. Obviously, the environment, the planet and the threat of climate change are at the top of the list of many people’s worries right now.

This may explain why we see “purpose” popping up in all corporate stories today. Purpose has become the magic word: it has this great ring to it, reverberating with all that is truthful, authentic. It has this “why we are here on Earth” aura about it. Even if your concerns take you in a different direction, purpose-wise, defining this aspect of your company or your brand makes a lot of sense. It can add distinction and helps you steer clear of ruffling activist feathers.

This isn’t enough to get you off the hook, though. The woke people know exactly why businesses have been so keen to develop their purpose. Truly radical woke people will take nothing for granted; they see a company statement about purpose as a devious corporate trick, a blind that must have been thrown up to hide something.

While these really radical woke folk may be a small minority, you still need to understand that the purpose of your brand or company is under scrutiny. People are not easy to please, and their patience with brand communications is very thin. It’s not as if it has become impossible to create campaigns that hit the spot with a large audience – it’s just that the risk of getting it wrong has increased exponentially compared to the early days of internet and the pre-social media period.

What could possibly go wrong?

There is no easy answer to this question. The knowledge that whatever you do as a business or whatever you put in your ad campaign could somehow be found offensive is enough to make one queasy. Somewhere, someone could be “triggered” by even the most innocuous-seeming remark or situation.

So you ask yourself: what could possibly go wrong? You can review creative proposals ad infinitum, you can cast them before consumer panels until you’re blue in the face, you can discuss them for hours on end with your brand team or board of directors – and still you can never know what could possibly go wrong. Just keep in mind the old adage: if it can go wrong, it will.

This year in Scotland, police asked McDonald's to stop serving milkshakes in Edinburgh. Nigel Farage was visiting, and authorities were afraid activists might try “milk-shaking” him. Ha! thought competitor Burger King, here is a great opportunity to get ourselves in the spotlight – so it announced to the people of Scotland that it would be selling milkshakes all weekend long.

Just a bit cheeky, not much else. But they forgot about the woke people. This clan had a few things to say about the cheeky ad and the result was that Burger King had painted its own brand as supporter of anti-fascist activists of the sort that wouldn’t shy away from violent action. BK got flame-grilled itself over what seemed to be an innocent little publicity poke in the eye of McDonald's. The stunt was even rebuked by advertising watchdog the ASA.

How to get it right

1. Be as transparent as you can be

Forget about thinking there’s something about the company you don’t have to mention because you think it’s not relevant. Tell everyone everything about yourself as a company. Tell your customers every little detail about a promotional offer or new subscription conditions or where and how and by whom your denim collection gets stitched.

Open up like you have never done before. Don’t hold back; be upfront about everything, even things you’re still working to improve, like the number of women at the top, mental well-being for your employees, better pay for the farmers that produce crops for your products etc.

2. Don’t try to be what you can’t

Nobody’s perfect. No brand in the world is doing everything right. It is simply not possible to keep producing stuff without incurring at least a little bit of environmental damage. Talk about it, explain it, report every improvement you make on that front, but be clear and honest about it.

3. Walk the Talk

Not too long ago, I saw a picture of a major construction company, showing a large group of all-white, male directors. The photo was part of an annual report in which the company claimed to be highly committed to diversity and inclusivity. This, obviously, is not a very wise thing to do. A mission, a purpose – it is only a good thing if you actually implement the plans to realise your promises. Make sure your deeds accord with your words.

It is tempting to develop a purpose for the company or brand that looks brilliant on paper – but make sure in advance that you can fulfil it, or at least take concrete, demonstrable steps in the right direction and share them with your customers and other stakeholders. Be credible at all times and at all costs by acting on any promises you make.

4. Watch the humour 

Humor can be a great instrument for creating impact and generating sympathy for your brand. At the same time, it is incredibly difficult to get the right sort of funny in your advertising; on top of that, it seems like there’s a growing number of people who simply can’t take a joke anymore. Hypersensitivity abounds. So think twice about that tiny little tongue-in-cheek remark in a commercial.

Don’t shy away from humour – it can still work wonders, but spend some extra time with your agency and the people around you to get the best possible sense of how that little prank, joke, remark or action will be interpreted by a diverse public.

5. Be honest

Of all the things you can do to avoid your company becoming the focus of negative attention, honesty is still the best policy. Show your integrity. Don’t become the next Volkswagen, trying to game your own system. Don’t become like Big Pharma, so obsessed with profit that it markets medicines that are costly beyond reason, or pushes products with addictive side effects. Go about your business with everything you’ve got, but remember, this is still and always will be a people’s world.

Fair or unfair, people have the right to get angry with you, shame you in public, ban your products, stir up a media maelstrom. Why make it easy for them by being a lying, cheating, tale- spinning, immoral, greedy bastard?

Erik Saelens is the founder and executive strategic director of Brandhome

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