Brand PR in the era of social media: Much ado about … what?

These days, brands often get caught up in a social media whirlwind whenever they might stumble. Whatever fallout there is can be magnified exponentially thanks to the reach of social platforms like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

When a “brand fail” becomes a topic of conversation in the media echo chamber, it can seem almost as though the wheels are coming off completely. But is that really the case?

Consider the past few weeks, during which time two airlines (United and American) and one consumer product (Pepsi) have come under fire in the social media sphere (and in other media as well) for alleged bad behavior.

In the case of United and American, it’s about the manhandling of air travelers and whether air carriers are contributing to the stress – and the potential dangers – of flying.

In the case of Pepsi, it’s about airing an allegedly controversial ad featuring Kendall Jenner at a nondescript urban protest, and whether the ad trivializes the virtues of protest movements in cities and on college campuses.

What exactly have we seen in these cases?  There’s been the predictable flurry of activity on social media, communicating strong opinions and even outrage.

United Airlines was mentioned nearly 3 million times on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram just on April 10th and 11th.  Reaction on social media over the Pepsi ad was similarly damning, if not at the same level of activity.

And now the outrage has started for American Airlines over the “strollergate” incident this past weekend.

But when you consider what the purpose of a brand actually is – to sell products and services to customers – what’s really happening to brand reputation?

A good proxy is the share price of the brands in question. United Airlines’ share price took a major hit the week the “draggergate” news and cellphone videos were broadcast, but it’s been climbing back ever since.  Today, United’s share price looks nearly the same as before the passenger incident came to light.

In the case of Pepsi, company shares are up more than 7% so far in 2017, making it a notably robust performer in the market. Moreover, a recent Morning Consult poll found that over 50% of the survey respondents had a more favorable opinion of the Pepsi brand as a result of the Kendall Jenner commercial.

That is correct:  The Pepsi commercial was viewed positively by far more people than the ones who complained (loudly) about it on social media.

What these developments show is that while a PR crisis isn’t a good thing for a brand’s reputation, social fervor doesn’t necessarily equate with brand desertion or other negative changes in consumer behavior.

Instead, it seems that the kind of “brand fails” causing the most lasting damage are ones that strike at the heart of consumers’ own individual self-interest.

Chipotle is a good example, wherein the fundamental fear of getting sick from eating Chipotle’s food has kept many people away from the chain restaurant’s stores for more than a year now.

One can certainly understand how fears about being dragged off of airplanes might influence a decision to select some other air carrier besides United – although it’s equally easy to understand how price-shopping in an elastic market like air travel could actually result in more people flying United rather than less, if the airline adjusts its fares to be more the more economical choice.

My sense is, that’s happening already.

And in the case of Pepsi, the Jenner ad is the biggest nothing-burger to come down the pike in a good while.  The outrage squad is likely made up of people who didn’t drink Pepsi products to begin with.

Still, as an open forum, social media is important for brands to embrace to speak directly to customers, as well as to learn more about what consumers want and need through their social likes, dislikes and desires.

But the notion of #BrandFails? As often as not, it’s #MuchAdoAboutNothing.

Brands and “cause marketing”: How much is too much?

cmWhen brands conduct attitudinal studies of their customer base, the research often finds that people respond favorably to so-called “positive” or “progressive” causes.

The ALS “Ice-Bucket Challenge” is probably Exhibit A for the potency of such an initiative — including its fantastically successful viral component.

So it’s only natural that brand managers would think in terms of tying their brands to high-profile events such as Earth Day or popular health causes such as efforts to cure cancer or heart disease.

Perhaps the activity is doing a highly publicized community initiative … hosting a well-publicized 5K run or similar event … or donating funds for the cause in a new and attention-grabbing way.

But here’s the rub: With so many national brands doing precisely these sorts of things, it’s become something of an echo chamber.  What once was fresh and novel now seems decidedly ho-hum.

Besides, with so much breathless “cause activity” happening, it’s little wonder that many consumers are seeing through all the hype and attaching near-zero attribution to the brands involved.

The situation is even more problematic when there’s little or no connection between the brand’s products or services and the cause being supported.  The problem is, when brands start vying for attention — especially allying with causes that have nothing at all to do with their core business — “authenticity” goes out the window.

In the process, the brands may telegraph something even worse than irrelevancy; they look desperate for attention.

Of course, all of this evidence doesn’t mean that major brands aren’t continuing to try to attach themselves to the positive vibes of social action. Some recent examples are these:

More problematic than these campaigns was the Starbucks initiative last year in which its baristas were encouraged to start conversations about race relations, interacting with customers waiting in line for their espressos and muffins.

Let’s just say that the idea looked better on paper compared to how it panned out in real life — with more than a few Starbucks customers finding the initiative awkward, intrusive and off-putting (and taking to Twitter to vent their feelings).

Thinking about the good and the not-so-good of “cause marketing,” it appears that the more successful of these initiatives are ones which hew more closely to a brand’s own essence.

Patagonia is a good example of this. Its mission has always been to design and manufacture quality products in an environmentally responsible way, and it promotes proper stewardship of the land and of material possessions through many initiatives that just “feel right” for this particular brand.

And in the realm of apparel and cosmetics, a whole bevy of brands have jumped into conversations about “positive self-image.” While to some people it may seem self-serving for brands like Dove® soap, American Eagle lingerie and Lane Bryant plus-size apparel to become active in such causes, one can also see the logical connection between the products these brands sell and the themes they are spotlighting in these campaigns.

Authenticity and genuineness: Not only are they the hallmark of successful brands, they’re the acid test for successfully grabbing a share of the “social good” pie.  Who’s doing it right … and who’s missing the mark?  Let us know your nominations.