When Brands Make Viral Mistakes

Kelly O’Keefe
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Key Takeaways

What? Dove recently came under fire for a video featuring a black woman who removes her shirt to become a white woman.

So what? In this socially conscious atmosphere, every betrayal adds another brick to the wall of consumer cynicism marketers must break through to be heard and trusted.

Now what? Remember that phrase we all learned in school: “Actions speak louder than words.” ​​

Oct. 27, 2017

After yet more examples of brands acting badly, marketers need to apply  authenticity and behave in a way that aligns with their messaging

Dove recently came under fire for launching a video featuring a black woman who removes her shirt, and apparently her skin, to become a white woman. At the same time, State Street Global Advisors, a Wall Street firm that won accolades for its “Fearless Girl” installation, faced a lawsuit by its own employees charging women are not paid equally at the company. 

Both brands found themselves on the receiving end of a tidal wave of negative press and social media outrage, and both reflect a growing plague spreading through the marketing world: Companies develop socially relevant campaigns in the marketing department with no link to the actual values reflected by their businesses. For many of these companies, advertising about social themes is just a put-on, slipped on and off as easily as the color of skin in a Dove ad. Let’s look at just a few recent examples:

Volkswagen proved it’s not easy being green when they boasted about eco-friendly cars while covertly engineering tricks to falsify emissions information. Volkswagen officials responded to the crisis by vowing to change their ways.

Even before the current crisis, Unilever’s Dove brand was criticized when it’s “Real Beauty” campaign proved to be less than skin deep after critics noted Unilever brands like Axe were promoting the kind of sexual stereotypes Dove was criticizing. Unilever has responded to the criticisms by agreeing to change its ways.

Wells Fargo has been known to boast about its corporate values right up to the time it was fined $185 million for opening fraudulent accounts in a scandal that continues to escalate. Wells Fargo officials have responded to the crisis by promising to change its ways.

In every case, we see companies who are eager to promote their values and social responsibility on the outside without making meaningful changes to ensure a culture that honors those values on the inside. 

This disconnect between advertising and actions helps contribute to an environment where corporate advertisers have ranked near the bottom of Gallup’s list of honesty in professions for the last 40 years. The best year on record for advertisers was 2013 when a whopping 3% of the public considered the field to have “very high” ethics. Alas, that fell back down to 1% in the most recent survey, less than the margin of error. 

The troubling reality is that every betrayal adds another brick to the wall of consumer cynicism we marketers must break through to be heard and trusted, but we can change this. 


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For brands that genuinely care about the social issues that matter to their customers, the formula is simple. Ask yourself these questions:

  1. Do we genuinely believe in the cause, from the C-suite to the cash register?

  2. Have we taken measures to demonstrate our beliefs through the actions of the company across every department?

  3. Do we reflect our beliefs in hiring, orienting, training and rewarding employee behavior?

  4. Are these beliefs reflected in our corporate philanthropy, do we give to aligned causes?

Only when you can answer “yes” to all four of these questions, are you ready to share your beliefs to the outside world and invite them to join the cause. 

It’s exciting to see that so many corporate marketers are willing to take a stand by expressing positive values and supporting worthy causes in their advertising. To make these messages stick, we only have to remember that phrase we all learned in school: “Actions speak louder than words.”


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Author Bio:

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Kelly O’Keefe
Kelly O’Keefe has been a marketing innovator for more than 20 years. Prior to becoming a professor and managing director of the VCU Brandcenter, Kelly led O’Keefe Marketing, a pioneer in digital marketing and branding. O’Keefe Marketing received over 100 major awards, and its work is cited in numerous books and journals, including Business @ the Speed of Thought by Bill Gates. The agency was named Southeast Agency of the Year by Adweek Southeast, and Kelly was named Virginia Entrepreneur of the Year and Richmond Ad Person of the Year. Kelly has been a strategic brand adviser to clients like GE, ESPN, Walmart, Hamilton Beach, Sesame Workshop, National Association of Broadcasters, UPS and The Home Depot. He has served as a founding board member of both the VCU Brandcenter and the Ad:Tech conference, and has been a board member of the Future of Advertising Project at Wharton, Southern Technology Council, FIRST Robotics Competition, September 11 Victims’ Relief Fund, Virginia Council of CEOs, Boys & Girls Clubs of Metro Richmond, St. Joseph’s Villa, Trinity Episcopal School and several corporations. Kelly’s commentary on branding has been featured in media like CNBC, CNN/fn, Fox, MSNBC, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, USAToday, BusinessWeek, Brandweek, Time Magazine, U.S. News & World Report, Advertising Age, the Washington Post and the LA Times. The VCU Brandcenter was named the No. 1 graduate advertising program by Creativity magazine and became the first winner of the 4A’s O’Toole award for the Best Advertising School, a title it still holds.
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