The Sad State Of Brands This Week

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This post is not going to earn me a lot of friends (and I really don’t care).

I am a proud marketer. It’s not easy to say that. It’s not easy to write that… but it’s true. I love marketing. I love helpings brands figure out their competitive advantage. I love it when brands need help in defining everything from their pricing strategy to how they promote themselves. Pushing that further, I love digital marketing because it enables brands to connect with consumers like never before. Finally, the brands that are willing to can have real interactions between real human beings. They can create a new layer of comfort and culture. They can help consumers make better (and more informed) choices. Then, there’s the other stuff. There’s the spammers, the manipulators, the hucksters and those who are over-promising on a product (or service) that severely under-delivers. Even those that give marketers a bad name (the ones that tend to involve the need for government to step in a set up legislation to control these antics) become somewhat tolerable in a world that gave us two very depressing moments this week that both deserve your attention and require your action…

Number one: people die when goods are too cheap.

I know we’re still reeling over the Boston Marathon terrorist attacks that took three lives and injured so many more. We still have so many unanswered questions that require a semblance of closure, but on this day, we’re also trying to sort out the collapse of an eight-story building in Bangladesh. Over 300 people are dead, many more injured and many more still trapped. Are brands to blame? Not directly, but this is a building that housed garment factories with workers for brands that many of us know, love and are currently wearing (I wonder if those brands have stopped tweeting and posting to Facebook during this tragedy?). This isn’t an isolated incident. Building like this have had tragedies before… and it’s probably an indication of many more to come. If you want to better understand the ramifications of a business world that demands more and cheaper products, please read the CNN piece, Bangladesh factory collapse: Who really pays for our cheap clothes? To put some context around this, particular, tragedy: work wages in Bangladesh are the lowest in Asia at around $37 a month (yes, $1 per day). This building didn’t even have the permits in place to be built. When brands turn around and claim that these types of tragedies are not their fault, we really do have to delve deeper into the problem and recognize that we are all to blame. Just how many types of t-shirts, sneakers and more does our world really need? This pressure for consumption is core to why we have these tragedies in our lives. Like I said, this past paragraph probably won’t earn me any friends, but it is a truth that is going to be increasingly hard to ignore.

Number two: when you’re wrong don’t claim you didn’t know.

A well-known South Korean car manufacturer had an unwanted viral video sensation on their hands this past week. In a TV commercial posted online to promote a new car that has 100% water emissions, the creative agency decided to tell the tale of a middle-aged man attempting to commit suicide by asphyxiation in his garage only to uncover that the clean emissions won’t kill him. Beyond the appropriate, "stay classy!" comments that are well-deserved, I’m less interested in the discourse about whether or not things like attempted suicide are the proper fodder to sell a car, and much more upset by the fact that the car manufacturer is disavowing any involvement in the ad. Huh? What? I’ve been in this industry a fair number of years and no piece of advertising ever makes it to the final product without multiple approvals and meetings to discuss everything from the strategy and creative to execution and media plan. What makes this even more laughable (in a very tragic sense) is that the ad agency in question is actually owned by the car manufacturer. That’s right, instead of just having internal creative services, the car manufacturer spun-off their internal marketing team and turned it into its own agency business. So, even if they claim that they were not involved in the production or the original posting (as if any seasoned marketing professional would ever buy that), they still actually own the agency. Doesn’t that make them fully responsible?

Earn your stripes.

Marketing is not easy. More often than not, marketing professionals are stumbling around in the dark doing everything they can to find some kind of edge, insight or unique selling proposition that will make the consumer choose one product over a myriad of other – relatively good – options. It’s a hard job that has only become more complex in the past few years (with no signs of letting up). That all being said, this week wasn’t pretty for our industry. Tragedies, disasters, missteps and more demonstrate that we have a long way to go in truly earning the public’s trust and in truly becoming more transparent and social brands. I’m hopeful that I’m not the only marketer embarrassed and upset by how brands have reacted this week. I’m hopeful that I’m not the only marketer who is proud of our profession and feels that we can do a whole lot more to make the world a better, more open and exciting place as well.

Am I?


  1. Great thoughts here, Joel. While I understand the Type A’s need to consistently satisfy shareholder wants and needs it comes at a price from a long term strategy viewpoint. Just like when good customer service and sales requires less advertising spend because the brand is consistent internally and externally with how it treats all of its stakeholders.
    More and more public relations is a costly business for brands (GoDaddy, Jimmy Johns, Papa Johns, etc.) that try to hide behind CSR strategies. The challenge almost always becomes evident when there is a shift in organizational culture due to change in management (Wendy’s, Disney, etc.). The original vision and the ethics that come with it are usually cast aside. An ever increasing problem for companies at the top of their industry.

  2. Mitch,
    You are not alone. Sometimes it’s not easy to be a marketer. Writing my blog over the the last 6+ years has been cathartic – probably like writing this post was for you. Hang in there – we can help be the change for those that care.

  3. It always comes down to the crux of corporate hubris: dollars over sense. Business is not easy. Bad marketing makes it unnecessarily harder.

  4. Thank you, Mitch. You have expressed what I have been feeling about the workers in Bangladesh–hundreds die to give us cheap clothing, and hardly anyone here seems to notice. It is heart breaking.

  5. Mitch, what you have pointing out about the past week has been true every week every year for as long as mass marketing has existed. It is disheartening to know that a lot of brands can be accused of this.
    In fact, I went through over 20 case studies of major brands like KFC, Zara, Adidas, ChickfilA, a few months ago. Each of those case studies was about how these brands only cared about putting on a good image that customers will clog to, while endorsing practices that are not praiseworthy in the manufacturing. In fact, the practices highlighted in these cases were so questionable that they prompted reactions by organizations like Greenpeace.

  6. I agree Mitch. Healthy criticism for a broken system. We need to start thinking about what clients we serve and what ones we don’t. I don’t think we ask enough questions about the manufacturing process when the term AOR or Retainer comes out. As for the suicide creative, it is probably the worst ad I have ever seen…. Heads should role, but bad tv creative is ubiquitous. I think point one is a million times bigger an issue than point two, but both points are bang on.

  7. Great post.
    But for the brands complicit in fostering those horrendous working conditions, social media silence is not the appropriate response. Kudos to Joe Fresh for attempting to tackle the issue head-on in social media.
    Walmart Canada, on the other hand, pinned a gift card contest for “Rollback” items to the top of their Facebook Page on the day of the collapse (no doubt some of these items were made in similar factories). And they have kept merrily posting since.
    As a marketer, I find that not just embarrassing, but reprehensible.

  8. This a great post that digs below the pristine image too many big companies succeed in creating of themselves as just good folks selling good stuff (and of course supporting kids charities). I would modify one of your lines by saying people die when goods are PRODUCED too CHEAPLY. For example, things like gold and diamonds aren’t cheap yet the workers who slave to get them out of the ground make almost nothing – as recent protests by South African miners demonstrate.
    You are rare Mitch: an excellent big brand marketer willing to admit he’s got a conscious.

  9. Nicely Done Mitch – your usual honest take no prisoners approach. As others commented (#violentagreement) brands are increasingly hiding behind social media with content spam that clogs up the stream with no real engagement.
    Toms comes to mind as an authentic brand that uses social media for something more than promotions and selling shoes.
    Keep up the lonely vigil – au contraire/non status quo marketing is always challenging!!

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