For decades, in the words of Washington State University Carson College of Business researcher Andrew Perkins, brand marketing has “always been about making people feel better about themselves.” Put another way, marketing has sold people on who they want to be, not necessarily who they are.
“Marketing is aspirational,” added Dave Barcos, founder of The Startup Brand, a Vancouver-based consulting firm.
Both Perkins and Barcos agree that the aspirational component of marketing explains why negative advertising has a long history of effectiveness; by telling consumers that they are not living up to their potential and then suggesting that a few simple changes can propel them to their goals, brands are able to convince consumers that their product is a must-have fix.
However, in recent years with the rise of social media, brands have had to evolve how they communicate that message. As Barcos put it, “Communication is [now] more of a two-way street” with consumers having just as much interaction with their favorite brands as the brands do with them. As a result, companies have been working fast to hire social media managers and marketing teams with the skills to adapt to changing tools.
While that means many brands are becoming more personable and relatable in order to appeal to audiences that want to feel like companies “get” them, Perkins issues a caution: While social media might be a great tool for brands, it’s also a great tool for consumers who want to flip the message – a hard lesson learned by Chip Wilson, CEO of LuLuLemon, when customers dug up an old interview where he claimed the brand wasn’t meant for overweight customers.
LuLuLemon is not alone in having old missteps resurface. Bud Light and even IHOP have experienced their share of negative publicity because of social media.
“There are many opportunities to mess up, and your customers are watching,” said Perkins.
But social media is infectious. A well-executed social media campaign spreads more effectively than other types of advertising precisely because of its interactive nature. When Dove launched its “Campaign for Real Beauty” and later its accompanying hashtag #MyBeautyMySay, it invited consumers to talk with each other and to have a larger dialogue about their values, all while using Dove’s marketing slogans as a touchstone.
Barcos encourages brands he works with to use word-of-mouth marketing because it’s “the most effective;” people trust their peer group to let them know what events to participate in and which brands are best, so thanks to social media, word-of-mouth is happening on a much greater scale than has ever been possible before.
With increased power in the hands of the consumer, much of today’s conversation involves company ethics.
According to Perkins, having a set of values is a must-have for brands now, and “those values should be visible and observable in the behavior of the brand.”
For example, Patagonia uses social and environmental sustainability to sell products, but famously markets not buying more than consumers really need and recycling what they no longer want or can no longer use. That focus on ethics mobilizes their base, creating loyal followers.
However, as Perkins also indicates, if brands are unwilling to live out their values, it will not take long for customers to unearth the truth. Unilever, Dove’s parent company, experienced exactly that when the aforementioned “Campaign for Real Beauty” contrasted with Axe Body Spray’s famously objectifying marketing. The result was that Dove’s campaign came off as insincere to many consumers who felt another brand might better reflect their own values.
Preparing for criticism
Delena Meyer, owner of Way Enough Decision Coaching in Vancouver, believes brands can go even further than simply living their values. She teaches clients how bringing trauma-informed principles into their businesses or nonprofits is part of an effective outreach strategy.
“It’s not about knowing the science; it’s about knowing the effects,” she said.
Meyer pointed out that the majority of adults (70 percent, according to the Sidran Institute) have experienced at least one traumatic event in their lives, and a consumer who has trauma in their background is more likely to wage “social media war.” Businesses that are prepared for this sort of behavior can respond accordingly, she said, or even prevent that customer from becoming upset in the first place.
Meyer’s caution may explain why some of the missteps brands have taken in social media marketing have been so virulent.
Understanding that most customers are likely to have experienced trauma before can help businesses be more empathetic and remain aligned with their company values, even in the face of criticism.