BE AUTHENTIC OR BE QUIET: ALIGNING BRANDS WITH MAJOR EVENTS

From Coca-Cola dressing Santa Claus in red to Gregg’s’ infamous Sausage Roll-gate episode, brands have aligned themselves with key calendar dates to drive sales since time immortal.

But with a plethora of modern-day events to choose from, where is the line between tangible and tenuous link? And how can brands refrain from crossing it with damaging consequences?

Let’s start with a fairly obvious but important stat

91% of people want the brands they follow on social media to be authentic

Apart from suggesting that 9% of us don’t mind being hoodwinked by unsalacious brands, what does this actually mean?

Jack Ashdown and Nick Horne of creative agency Great State addressed this issue at their recent Social Media Week Bristol talk. They described ‘authentic’ brands as being reliable, respectful and real.

So – let’s break down different types of event and look at how brands can stay true to these values (and their own) when considering whether or not to stand alongside them.

SEASONAL AND CULTURAL EVENTS

These are the events that roll around every year, the more significant ones faithfully marked on your calendar.

At times like Christmas, Halloween, Valentines or Mother’s Day, few brands look out of place running promotions or campaigns. (Let’s not dwell on whether it’s a good thing that they’ve become so commercialised!)

Because of this over-saturation, however, brands needs to be more original and creative to cut through the noise. There’s less worry about controversy than with other events as the emotions associated with seasonal ones are universal and usually common sense.

That being said, it’s not unheard of to get it wrong. 2017 saw a number of complaints directed at Poundland’s ‘Elf Behaving Badly’ campaign. Pictures of the elf with suggestive tag-lines enraged many sections of the public. Consumers weren’t expecting it from Poundland. People don’t associate them with such a cheeky personality.

Poundland Eld brand authenticity                   (Image: Plymouth Herald)

Gregg’s on the other hand do have a fun personality, almost satirising the significance and popularity of their own products in popular culture.

So when they executed their Christmas mischief in line with their tongue-in-cheek nature by sharing a picture of a sausage roll in the place of baby Jesus, it generally had a positive reception amongst their own customers.

Greggs Sausage Roll Authentic Brand                (Image: Guardian)

Others did find it distasteful and offensive, obviously. But this demographic was generally unlikely to be current or future Greggs customers.

It could be argued that of Great State’s three ‘rules of authenticity’, it lacked a little respect. But it was real, displaying humour and self-deprecation. And it was certainly reliable, in that it was in line with the consistent voice of the brand.

Poundland on the other hand didn’t adhere to any of them. As such, Gregg’s came across as a friend sharing a joke, whereas Poundland was an annoying uncle that makes dirty jokes over Christmas lunch. (Sorry to stereotype uncles).

CONTEMPORARY EVENTS

These days, we fill our calendars with everything from the World Cup to World Coffee Day. Not all brands promote during these occasions, so they can be a chance to stand out in a quiet moment.

However, jumping on any old day and crowbarring relevance to your brand can do more harm than good. There needs to be a real reason or link otherwise it’s too much of an obvious selling tactic. Do your consumers really care about International Guinea Pig Day? Probably not.

The golden rule is: if you don’t have anything valuable or authentic to say, don’t say it!

(Check out this advice from Marketing Dive on how brands should “insert themselves into the conversation” around Pi Day. And this follow-up from Ad Age on how many ended up getting it wrong!)

Maybe there should be two golden rules though (if that’s within the rules of golden rules). Number 2: if you do say something, make it unique and different.

REI, an outdoor brand in America handled Black Friday really well in 2017. They closed their stores. What? On one of the biggest shopping days of the year?! Instead they encouraged people to go outside and enjoy themselves.

REI Black Friday                 (Image: REI)

It may have led to lost revenue in the short term, but it was a perfect fit with their values and the values of their consumers. It was real, it was respectful and even though it may have disappointed one or two customers looking for a bargain, ultimately it was reliable.

That makes them pretty damn authentic.

CURRENT AFFAIRS

The rise of social media has allowed brands to instantly align themselves with events in the headlines. Despite modern social media teams (mostly) operating under strict governance on what to say and when to say it, we still get regular hashtag fails.

Being authentic is about what you don’t say as much as what you do. One example is this piece by The Drum on how brands should react when the queen dies.

Obviously, it’s common sense that such a moment shouldn’t be seen as an opportunity for self-promotion, but even when being silent there is still work to be done. Removing upbeat scheduled tweets, for example. Nobody wants to come across as insensitive just because they failed to look over that day’s content plan.

For those brands with British heritage or a connection to the monarchy, staying quiet isn’t appropriate. Their audience expect them to comment. Again, it all comes down to which approach is more authentic.

Princess Diana's flowers and authenticity of brands                (Image: The Drum)

Whatever the decision, it’s important to take a breath and think before joining these fast-moving conversations. During a murder trial in America, #notguilty was a trending topic on Twitter. Without researching what it meant, American cake brand Entenmann’s used it in reference to eating cake guilt-free.

It may seem like a harmless mistake, but it’s anything but respectful. Not something a brand striving for authenticity wants to be remembered for.

POLITICAL EVENTS

These can be particularly sensitive and dangerous occasions to jump into. Emotions are often running high.

Last week’s International Women’s Day was an interesting event to observe. Many brands had something to say, and in most cases rightly so. Brands with a strong female following need to acknowledge International Women’s Day, or people will question their commitment to both their employees and their customers.

McDonalds Brand Authenticity               (Image: CTV News)

However, to be truly authentic they need to walk the walk and not just talk the talk. McDonalds received praise from the creative community for the simple yet brilliant flipping of the M to a W. But after numerous sexual harassment claims were highlighted on social media, this turned into a vitriolic backlash.

Similarly, the reaction to Lacoste’s brilliantly original environmental awareness campaign was initially nothing but praise. However this was tempered somewhat when it was revealed that their business is rated horrendously for sustainability.

Stacy's Pita Chips and Brand authenticity                (Image: She Knows)

A better case study is American snack brand Stacy’s Pita Chips. They recently launched limited edition packaging sporting feminist artwork for Women’s History Month. With a inspirational female founder behind the brand, their message is authentic. And their packaging looks great too!

Authenticity isn’t a slogan, a logo or a campaign. It is values that businesses must have at their very core. Only when these values align 100% with those around a political event should it be pertinent to get involved. Otherwise the damage can be irreparable.

UNPLANNED EVENTS

Most of the time a brand can be neutral until they decide to address a topic, but sometimes it comes to them.

Stop Funding Hate is an organisation that writes to brands that advertise in certain newspapers and asks them to review whether their brand values align with the political tone of the paper. It has led to some brands ceasing adverts in the Daily Mail and other newspapers.

Stop Funding Hate Brands Advertising                (Image: Stop Funding Hate)

They test the commitment to authenticity a brand has. Is your brand’s ad alongside a highly charged Daily Mail article bemoaning immigrants respectful, reliable and real in the eyes of your audience? It may well be. But if it isn’t, then truly authentic brands will make the right call.

TO SUM UP…

There are many different ways to tackle events and occasions, and capitalising on them can be both lucrative and rewarding for brands.

This is because most events are about emotions – both positive and negative. Being authentic ensures your brand stands a better chance of aligning with the former, and not the latter.

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