How brand shilling during a crisis kills trust

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It’s safe to say that 2020 has been a tumultuous year, and it shows no signs of easing up anytime soon. From Covid-19 to police brutality to the looming (sure-to-be capricious) presidential election, the ripple effects are still being felt around the world. And while navigating the new normal is challenging for individuals, it’s equally uncharted for brands. As the economy dips and consumer needs shift, brands have had to make pivots on what they’re offering — and even more immediately, how they’re offering it — to stay connected and conscientious.

The results, however, have laid bare quite a few corporate failings. Along with the pandemic and global protests, 2020 has served up an abundance of tone-deaf marketing campaigns and hot air. With nothing much to do and ample hours spent scrolling through social feeds, many consumers, especially the authenticity-hungry Millennials and Gen Z-ers, are quick to call BS on the brands they once supported. 

When Crisis Response Comes Up Short

In the time of Coronavirus, one prime example of an advertising face plant is McDonald’s. In a Brazilian ad campaign, the fast-food chain tipped its hat to social distancing by adding a space between its iconic golden arches. While altering a brand logo might seem like a clever and creative tactic to say a lot by saying so little, Twitter users (like John Cusack and Bernie Sanders) were quick to call out the company’s lack of genuine support for its own employees. Faced with little-to-no paid sick leave and minimum wages, many McDonald’s staff have become involuntary frontline workers. They continue to prepare meals for the public amid this global pandemic. In California, employees staged a walk-out to protest the company’s abhorrent response to Covid-19. So with good reason, the McDonald’s ad was pulled soon after its launch, but not before diminishing a good deal of sway in the competitive fast-food landscape.

Another brand with some so-so Coronavirus-response feedback is Lysol. For a company offering cleaning products, it would seem nearly impossible to blunder brand messaging during a pandemic. Well, think again. While the world saw a hand-sanitizer shortage and empty cleaning-product shelves, Lysol continued running chipper disinfectant ads about kids in school. Instead of altering their messaging to match the current mood, (read, anything but chipper), the recycled adverts put the public off. A better tactic for Lysol would’ve been to address growing anxieties related to the shortage of cleaning supplies in grocery stores and pledging to be there for their customers through these challenging times. In the case of Lysol, the slow branding reaction is almost equivalent to no reaction at all.

When Statements Of Solidarity Ring Hollow

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iStock.com/ Rick_Thompson

On top of Coronavirus marketing fails, the Black Lives Matter movement has put a spotlight on many thinly veiled advocacy statements. Remember the epic Pepsi-and-Kendall-Jenner fiasco? While it should have been a lesson in messaging, sincerity, and not slapping your logo on to social issues, too many brands continue to miss the mark.

Take Bristol Dry Gin, for example. In a since-removed Instagram post, the UK distillery joked that rioters favored their gin for its “high flammability.” They even went so far as to make a play on Donald Trump’s controversial tweet “when the looting starts, the shooting starts,” which has its painful pre-Trump history rooted in oppression. The consequence? The public response was swift. Two separate distributors immediately dropped Bristol Dry Gin. Consumer ratings continue to fall sharply across e-commerce sites, while their negative comments are on the rise. Since posting, Bristol Dry Gin has apologized for their tone-deaf messaging, but it may be too little too late. In the face of a social movement confronting systemic racism around the world, ill-timed humor and edgy gimmicks go beyond insensitive; they’re idiotic. 

Although not intended to be jokes, it’s easy to laugh at the irony of Johnson & Johnson’s new skin tone band-aids, or the allyship message put forth by the Chicago Blackhawks. In the case of Band-Aid, a move to acknowledge diversity only highlights the company’s 100-year history of ignorance when it comes to representation. What’s more, the response comes 15 years after another campaign to diversify bandage shades had been ditched, due to poor sales. Customers were quick to highlight the brand’s record of putting profits before people and call out the promotion for what it is: a band-aid solution. The same can be said for the Chicago Blackhawks. In a statement condemning racism, the organization promised to stand against inequality. While it may sound good at first glance, the message ultimately rings hollow — it’s hard to stand by an organization willing to shill jerseys with a logo that uses the imagery of indigenous Americans. Of course, the NHL is not alone in this glaring blind spot. Roger Goodell and the NFL will have a lot to reckon with this fall, should the football season be up and running. 

When Customers Recognize They’re Being Played

Global pandemics and politics aside, personal crises happen every day, and customers notice when brands use that to their advantage. Take Uber, for example. While the ride-sharing app has had its share of backlash based on its corporate culture alone, the public has also noted its manipulative power plays. Tactics such as surging fares when clients’ phones are running low on battery or, more recently, charging cash-strapped businesses an exorbitant fee for Uber Eats deliveries during an economic recession. In Toronto, restaurateurs have started rolling boycotts, opting to miss out on delivery revenues to protest the brands’ policies. If it’s anything like the #deleteuber campaign that saw hundreds of thousands of users deleting the app in 2017, all in support of an NYC’s cab drivers’ strike, Uber and Uber Eats will have no choice but to take notice — and apologize — once again. Only time will tell. 

When consumers really need you to extend a hand, and you instead extend a badge with your logo on it, it won’t go well for you. Take note, brands.

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