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With New York Knicks point guard Jeremy Lin dominating sports headlines since his February 4 debut as a starter in a winning game against the New Jersey Nets, perhaps it was inevitable that the biggest controversy surrounding Lin would itself be a headline.
Following a February 17 loss to the New Orleans Hornets, ESPN.com’s mobile site posted a story with an offensive, racially-tinged headline that immediately set the Twitter-sphere afire and sparked days of outraged commentary and reaction. ESPN scrambled to recover, especially after learning that the very same phrase had been used earlier during an interview by an ESPNEWS anchor and, separately, by an ESPN Radio play-by-play announcer. Multiple apologies, one dismissal and one suspension later, ESPN is trying to put this ugly, unfortunate incident behind it.
But in a broader sense, this incident won’t go away because it is emblematic of a new concern worrying brand marketers these days – the power of instantaneous social indignation to blindside brands with consumer wrath and retribution. The ESPN controversy followed hard on the heels of other high-profile controversies, including the BP Gulf oil spill, the Netflix split and partial rebranding of its product offerings, the Bank of America debit card fee and the Susan G. Komen decision to discontinue its funding of Planned Parenthood. In each of these cases, angry people took to social media, and the ensuing tempests roiled these organizations and threatened their consumer goodwill and loyalty.
Headlines are now trumpeting the new muscle consumers are flexingto bring brands to heel. But is this accurate? Closer scrutiny reveals a different story and a different takeaway. Instead of presaging a new era of consumer power, these instances actually reveal the enduring power and authority of brands, notwithstanding the occasional infernos being fanned of late by social networks.
BP stumbled during the oil spill crisis, but its business is thriving again and it has returned to the profitability levels it enjoyed before the spring of 2010. Netflix suffered an exodus of 800,000 customers and a stock fiasco before it reversed course on splitting its product offerings, but it did not reverse the associated price increases, its stock price is moving up again after strong news in January and it is expanding into the UK and Europe. Bank of America was forced to reverse its $5 per month charge, but never said it was permanently abandoning that fee; instead, it said explicitly that it was reserving the option to charge that fee this year. Though suffering some drop in donations, Susan G. Komen attributes it to the economy, and its response to the anger it triggered was a promise only to continue funding existing grants not future grants, which mollified critics but was essentially the same as its original announcement. Even before the headline debacle, ESPN had issued internal editorial guidelines about insensitive racial and ethnic slights when covering Jeremy Lin, so its policies going forward are no different than before, just, perhaps, better policed.
The real story is that the consumer outrage fueling these supposedly iconic moments hasn’t changed much of anything. To quote Shakespeare, “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
This is not always the case, of course. Rachel Carson’s 1962 bestseller sparked the modern environmental movement and led to a ban on DDT a decade later. Ralph Nader’s 1965 exposé caused GM to shut down production of the Chevrolet Corvair in 1969. Boycotts and disinvestment campaigns brought meaningful economic pressure to bear against the system of apartheid in South Africa. Public concerns about GMO’s have led to severe restrictions on their distribution and usage in many countries around the world. The anti-nuclear movement of the 1970s and 1980s had the same lasting impact on nuclear power plants in the U.S. Just to mention a few.
Obviously, brand managers must beware of provoking consumer outrage. But there’s nothing new about this, and past instances in which anger brought a brand to its knees tended to be matters of life and death. If marketers are to take anything away from these recent incidents, three things are worth note.
First, it has never been a good idea to make consumers mad at you. Social media are the new means of expressing anger and frustration, but social media didn’t invent outrage. Anger boils up faster nowadays, but that’s just a matter of speedy response. Social media require attention, but an old media book has just as much power to damage a brand; in fact, as things right now, old media have the stronger track record in this regard.
Second, the social media phenomenon is still relatively new, so its impact is at a peak. This will subside over time as online petitions become a commonplace part of the background clutter online. This is no excuse for brands to misbehave. It is only to put the last couple of years in perspective. Indeed, as brands become more sophisticated and better practiced at handling social outrage, these sorts of headline events will get resolved well before they boil over into the public domain.
Finally, brands have momentum that is difficult to interrupt in an instant. Nearly every brand has stumbled once or twice, but only the rare brand finds itself permanently disabled by one egregious mistake. Brands that fail generally do so in increments over the course of years through an accumulation of missed chances and lost customers. What brand managers need to worry about most is not one big mistake but lots of little mistakes. It is important not to get distracted from the business at hand by the social media hullabaloo. Yes, there is something new afoot, just not the fundamentals of good brand management.
Contributed to Branding Strategy Insider by: J. Walker Smith, Executive Chairman, The Futures Company
Sponsored by: The Brand Positioning Workshop
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