How Not to Be a Tone-Deaf Brand
A lot of news sources have already unpacked and dissected the many missteps in the recent Kendall Jenner Pepsi ad. It was live for all of one day, but it will live on in brand infamy forever. Here are a few of the sources covering the cringe-worthy effort, if you want to dig deeper into this example:
Pepsi is clearly not the only brand to take this kind of wrong turn in their ads or other communications. A few recent examples include Match.com’s misguided characterization of red hair, freckles, or eye color as imperfections, as well as Nivea’s portrayal of “White is Purity” that earned immediate online fury. Most recently, United Airlines compounded their operational, planning and basic humanity missteps with a decidedly tone-deaf CEO communication that instead of calming the public outcry further fueled it.
The Internet is poised to identify, amplify and vilify brands that make these kinds of mistakes. Meanwhile consumers marvel at how, in this day and age, brand and creative strategists make the poor decisions that pass the many layers of consideration and reviews of these expensive efforts. It’s a fair question.
So, how can a brand avoid being tone deaf?
If your ad vision and subsequent brief’s objective is to tune into recent global trends or to otherwise tack onto complex societal issues, go back to the drawing board. You are not qualified to establish world peace, nor is it your brand mission. You can brag a bit about a sincere and established philanthropic effort or partnership, but that right is only earned after you have had a real world impact. Better yet, promote the effort, rather than the brand, and let the public laud you indirectly. The halo effect is very flattering.
If you have doubts about an approach or messaging platform under consideration, now is the time to trust your gut and voice those doubts. Spend some time and resources testing consumer reaction to get a direct read on how your vision could be perceived.
Cultural misappropriation stems directly from a failure in the ad industry to welcome and promote cultural diversity. Look around the table and see who has a voice. Make sure your company is doing what it can to encourage all talents and perspectives at every level in the organization. You will be smarter and safer for it.
It’s way too easy to fall in love with your own work. From a technical and production perspective, the Pepsi ad was a beautiful piece of work. It appears, however, that senior strategists and creative leaders failed to take a hard look at the overall messaging before bringing the flawed vision to life.
Hopefully the tough questions are being asked before the resources are committed to production. Of course, this is only helpful if the environment is accepting of differing and dissenting opinions and a change in course is within reach. Again: A stunted environment where only a few voices matter is a warning sign.
The same mistakes can be made in all ad types, but they tend to be more glaring in longer-form, widely-seen or longer-lasting ads. Television ads in particular, because of their cost and production values, will have many review points at which teams could ask themselves if this is on-strategy and on-brand.
What of more transient ad types or channels? A banner ad, text ad or a social ad theoretically goes through a similar — though abbreviated — process of brief to preliminary form to review to final approvals. But because the investment is a fraction of a TV ad and the volume of pieces needed is so much higher, the attention is often fleeting and may not be connected back to the strategic brief. Watch for that. An ad or messaging blunder in any channel or medium can be just as widely shared as a wayward TV ad and can alter your brand story. The Match.com freckles debacle was a billboard and OOO effort.
Not Just Brands or Ad Agencies
Every media outlet reserves the right to review and approve ad creative before it is placed. Where is the responsibility (and outrage) against the publishers and other partners who profited from the distribution of these troublesome messages? The entire marketing and advertising ecosystem has to take responsibility for their respective roles in ensuring a fair and safe ad environment.
It’s not an easy task for brands to be both safe and relevant among continually shifting world views. Brands need to produce tons of content to quickly and continually feed their hungry channel requirements. At that same time, they also need to be thoughtful and careful. In order to balance those conflicting needs, they must ensure the right process and people are in place. Everyone involved must have the same crystal clear understanding of their brand values. If brands and their partners can simply remember who they are and what their audience needs while avoiding short cuts, they will be in good shape. Sounds like good advice for all of us.
With over 20 years of online experience Robin Neifield serves as the CEO of Netplus, a top interactive agency, and as the trusted digital guide for CMOs. She has been widely published and quoted on digital strategy and has been a frequent speaker and panelist at industry events like Search Engine Strategies, OMMA, Ad:Tech and others where her insights are sought on varied marketing topics such as digital strategy, behavioral targeting, social media marketing, search engine and conversion optimization, localization strategies and proximity marketing, mobile gaming and email marketing. You can find her on LinkedIn, or reach her by email or phone, (610) 304-9990.