Be careful what you wish for.
Never has a sentiment been so true like it is for brands these day. We have never lived in a more politically-driven and open-social environment at the same time. Brands should be spinning like a top (in fact, a lot of them are). If you think back to the early days of social media, there was a commonly-held sentiment that brands came into social media kicking and screaming (for the most part). This is a fact. Yes, there were brands that embraced the ethos of The Cluetrain Manifesto, and saw social media as a fantastic way to have real interactions between real human beings, still the vast majority of big, corporate brands had to re-invent their brand philosophy to better understand what it means to connect in this social era. Many started off with blogging – and the early social media platforms – as a way to counter-balance against the many individual voices that were now asking questions, complaining and trying to connect to a brand that, clearly, never had an operating procedure for how to deal with individuals in an open and public way.
Some would say that this made companies and brands much more human… and that’s a good thing, right?
In theory, this is not a good thing… it’s a great thing. Social media (and the openness that it brought) truly empowered a brand’s values to come alive. You could read – in their tweets – how serious they were about pleasing consumers that had been wronged, and just how interested they really were in acquiring new consumers by how they engaged and connected and answered questions. It was less about being a brand on social media and much more about how to be a brand in a community with others. On the other hand, it also became abundantly clear how many brands struggled with these marketing channels. It was (and still is) amazing to see how many brands treat these digital connection opportunities like a form of advertising or broadcasting… or a mixture of the two. Nothing more. Nothing less.
As brands connect more, are they really more human?
Here we are. Close to fifteen years since social media has become a prominent channel for a brand to connect. What we now see are brands who live (and die) by their values… and shared values with their consumers. It would be hard to argue that this is a bad thing, but it’s been a strange evolution of culture, society, politics and technology lately. And, yes, it has all come to a head. In essence, a brand can be more open and transparent, and still be a victim to outside sources that would have them scurrying back to the times when a brand was something you bought… and not something that you engaged/connected with as a consumer. In the past short while, we’ve seen a major automobile brand shocked to find out that an investigation in the UK revealed it was funding terrorists organizations, because their ads were being shown on extremist’s online channels. The issue was an unintended consequence of their programmatic/algorithmic technology. We’ve seen a major e-commerce platform fight with consumers and employees because a right-wing media organization purchased their platform to sell merchandise on. We’ve seen a highly-respected Silicon Valley innovator dismiss themselves from the U.S. President’s business advisory council, after consumers started a movement to delete their app. We’ve seen a major fashion retailer take it from all sides, because they stopped carrying the fashion line of the U.S. President’s daughter. We’ve even seen one of the world’s top YouTuber’s (one that brand’s loved to attach on to) lose their entire revenue stream after posting racist content. We have seen more than this. There is much more to come.
Maybe Howard Stern got it right?
In 2012, a major fast food chain came under fire, because one of their leaders took a position against same-sex marriage. While the brand was known to maintain highly-religious and traditional values, it lit the world up. I distinctly remember listening to Howard Stern talk up the subject, and he summarized it perfectly. He said (and, I’m paraphrasing here): “why don’t they shut up and just sell chicken?”
Can brands still be human without getting tangled in these sensitive, political, cultural and religious issues?
Last month, I posted an article titled, Be More Human Without Being Too Personal To Build Your Brand. The crux of this post was that you can be a very personable brand (either a corporate or a personal one) without being too personal. It’s not the only way, but brands are willingly (and unwillingly) being pulled into these social media, traditional media and public battles, that are driven by a customer’s values and how they may oppose those of the brands. It’s interesting: the consumer now believes that it’s not about what you sell and the price of it, but what you stand for. Brands are being pulled into battles, because their ads have inadvertently been tied to a bad situation. What’s unique now, is that the brand response is no longer binary. In today’s environment, brands that have quickly/swiftly removed themselves from the situation have often not been applauded, but hurt more for bending and cowering to another side. Brands that have pointed the blame elsewhere (like, say, blame the technology) have been bashed for being so out of touch with how business works these days. Brands that have distanced themselves from influencers that have run amok, are still accused of using them for when it works for the brand, but bailing on them when times get tough (meaning: not authentic). And more.
It’s a slippery slope.
Many businesses professionals believe in having a more holistic approach to crisis management (start developing strategies and scenarios, and have dark posts ready based on a myriad of situations). Still, with the current climate, it’s hard to figure out what the course of action should be. What are we really seeing? It feels like a world where consumers want brands to be more personal. They wants brands to be open and to stand for something, but when something goes awry (and it always does), the pitchforks are out. Consumers seem to not be forgiving, in the same way that they might be with a family member or friend. In turn, the brands aren’t really accepting responsibility, so much as pointing the finger at something else, laying blame elsewhere and excusing themselves with a caveat.
A Valentine’s Day Lesson.
It is Valentine’s Day (I love you all :)… and anybody in a substantive relationship knows that the only thing more powerful than “I love you,” is “I’m sorry.” And yes, there is a period after that “I’m sorry,” because adding anything else negates the apology. “I’m sorry, but…” “I’m sorry, and…” “If you want me to apologize, I will…” and on and on are not apologies. So, here’s the loving message for a brand today: if you get stuck (and it looks like you will, in an unwittingly way), try “sorry.” No caveats.
Wondering if that’s even enough these days?