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Brands & Consumers Derrick Daye

Consumer Expectations: A New High


Brand Strategy Consumers

doubt, when Maryland state delegate Emmett C. Burns, Jr., penned his
to Baltimore Ravens owner Steve Biscotti demanding that linebacker
Brendon Ayanbadejo be silenced about his support of marriage equality,
presumably by threatening his job, Burns had no idea what sort of rebuttal he
was inviting. It didn’t take long for him to find out.

days later, Minnesota Vikings punter Chris Kluwe posted an open letter to Burns
at Deadspin.com
taking him to task for the views Burns had expressed in his letter to Biscotti.
Kluwe already had a popular following for his blunt, acerbic, occasionally
vulgar, frequently derisive tweeting,
but his letter to Burns was over the top. The
New York Times
it as a “profanity-laden rant,” which doesn’t even begin to describe it. It was
helmet to helmet, and it took Burns right out of the game. Kluwe’s letter
ignited a firestorm of support, and 48 hours after it was published Burns conceded
he was wrong.

Kluwe – who had a perfect score on his verbal SAT and turned down Harvard to
play football at U.C.L.A. where he earned a double major in political science
and history – was doing more than showing off his compositional dexterity with George Carlin’s seven
dirty words. His letter was also, said The
New York Times
, an “insidiously thorough” and “multilayered, point-by-point
decimation of Burns’s argument.” Kluwe didn’t just rant; he made a reasoned,
logical argument, but in a ranting style that Kluwe was quoted as saying “comes
from a storied history on the World of Warcraft
forum boards.” In other words, Kluwe argued in the mode and vernacular of the
most popular MMORPG
of all-time, which is to say the rhetorical style of contemporary popular

Stay with me as I build towards an important marketing point.

sharp, vulgar tongue wasn’t deplored; it was celebrated, left and right. Rush
Limbaugh said
of Kluwe’s letter, “It is profane. It’s
funny; it’s humorous. The guy’s got a way with words.” St. Paul Pioneer Press columnist Bob Sansevere remarked,
“[Kluwe] might be a better writer than he is a punter…I’ve never seen an
athlete who can write like that.” Kluwe was not criticized for speaking with an
uncivil tongue; rather, his utterly unfriendly, discourteous manner was
praised. However abrasive, however brash, however crude, it was commended for a
good turn of phrase.

was a time not too long ago when such coarseness would have automatically disqualified
the argument, no matter how logical or well reasoned. During the particularly contentious
second term of the Clinton White House, Yale law professor Stephen Carter published an extensive and well-received case for civility in a book with that one word
as its title in which he argued that civility in discourse and behavior is an
issue of morals not mere manners. But as a 2012 survey
by PR firm Weber Shandwick makes clear, people have come to expect incivility
in public discourse. Nearly two-thirds agree there is a “major civility problem
in America.” Fifty-five percent believe
it is going to get worse, up from 39 percent inn 2010.

Kluwe’s letter is the way of the world these days, which is nothing less than
the institutionalization of incivility. No longer does incivility disqualify
you; in many instances, it elevates you. At the very least, incivility is now
considered routine. It is accepted, allowed to flourish and grow. This is not
to say that incivility is without its critics, only that incivility has been

in profanity show one aspect of this shift in public discourse. A study
by the Parents Television Council found a 69.3 percent rise in profanity during
prime time from 2005 to 2010. A 2006 study
of chat room conversations tracked an average of one curse word every two
minutes. Cursing at work has become
, and at schools, too. Not to mention the steadily growing use of profanity in books since the
early 1960s, a trend line anyone can see by using Google Ngram Viewer to search for a
favorite profanity in the 20 million-plus books Google has digitized to date.

some ways, the institutionalization of incivility is a consequence of the rise
of the kinship economy, which
has been
the subject
of previous
With the three core elements of family ties– bloodlines (process), intimacy
(people) and altruism (purpose) – now guiding social and marketplace interactions
there is a natural dynamic at work that both draws people together and pulls
people apart. Connections that come together as a result of the kinship economy
boost fellow feeling and empathy but also set people apart from other groups
bound by their own kinship ties. Sparks fly when groups come into conflict, with
incivility as one primary byproduct. With the rise of kinship as the
overarching motive force in the marketplace, it is no surprise that much of the
ensuing exchange of social currency is disagreeable and spiteful. Sometimes,
kin are like the Waltons;
other times, the
Hatfields and McCoys.

implications for brand marketers of an intrinsically indelicate consumer
marketplace are three-fold. First, consumers are less forgiving. A hard-edged
attitude means a hard-nosed consumer. Consumers have always been demanding, but
the bar has been raised by the permission to speak out and act out that is
implicit in today’s culture of unreserved expression. Consumers are less willing
to take things in stride. They are less patient, less willing to give the
benefit of the doubt, and less likely to trust the good intentions of a brand. When
consumers push back, they are more likely than ever to respond with a screed or
a disparaging video. Letters of complaint or polite calls to customer service
are viewed as cowardly and pathetic in a marketplace that celebrates the
profanity-laden rant.

in parallel with being less forgiving of brands, consumers are more respectful
of brands that tell it like it is. Mind you, consumers won’t appreciate a brand
using the kind of language they use about a brand. But consumers don’t want
brands to dither in double-speak. Consumers want brands that are forthright. Brands that speak up for
themselves when they feel they’ve been wrongly attacked. (Think CSDs
and the Bloomberg ban
.) Brands that
own up to mistakes. (Think Apple Maps.) Brands that employ a frank, straight-shooting
tone of voice. (Think Ford F150.)

stand for something. Consumers want brands to be brave, bold and brassy. Not to
the point of boorishness, of course, but to show some mettle in an increasingly
tough and disputatious world. Chris Kluwe took a stand, and that, perhaps more
than anything else, was the reason he won respect and notice. In doing so, he shared
common ground with an outspoken, like-minded brand in Ray-Ban
and with an unassuming, non-confrontational brand in Crate &
. But the COO of Chick Fil-A demurred, expressing
a strong opinion the other way. Each of these brands took a stand on the
issue at the heart of Kluwe’s profanity-laden rant, and despite controversy
surrounding their respective positions, by doing so, these brands earned
people’s regard, even if some of it was grudging. In a marketplace packed with
sharp elbows and bloody noses, such regard is the measure of success that
matters most.

Contributed to Branding Strategy Insider by: J. Walker Smith, Executive Chairman, The Futures Company

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Consumer Expectations: A New High