by Charlie Stewart (@CStewart_ZA) We’re only two-and-a-bit months into the year and already we’ve seen some staggeringly cringeworthy uses of social media by corporates.
Socially transmitted doodoo
While I’ve been unable to find any definitive examples of stocks tanking as a direct result of an inappropriate tweet (if readers know of any, please comment below), I suspect it won’t be long before financial pundits coin a phrase for the impact of a misguided Facebook post on company share prices: Socially Transmitted Doodoo (STD).
STDs certainly have the potential to move markets. Just ask Gerald Ratner, the CEO of the eponymously named 1000+ store jewellery chain. Back in the ’90s — and this was in the dark pre-internet age when blunders could generally be contained — he jokingly denigrated two of his company’s products while making a speech to the Institute of Directors (IoD) in London. Sadly for him, some journalists were present in the room. Their subsequent reports catalysed a £500m fall in the company’s share price.
Now, one place scarier than Ratner’s IoD is The London Dungeon.
Perhaps spending all day surrounded by implements of torture in the popular tourist hotspot does something to our ability to reason, but its Marketing team managed to conduct the equivalent of a self-evisceration this Valentine’s day. In a display of crassness that would have had even David Brent (the boss character from Ricky Gervais’s The Office) blushing, the tourist attraction posted a series of captioned images as part of a dark Valentine’s promotion. One of them — probably the worst (but only by a whisker) — asked followers “What’s the difference between your job and a dead prostitute? Your job still sucks!” Cue accusations of misogyny, sexism and an inevitable revenue curbing boycott.
And then there was Audi.
I wonder what level of scrutiny its US marketing team applied to the approval process for its first Super Bowl ad. Clearly not much. The ad, with its clarion call for equality and equal pay between the sexes, was intended to tug at America’s heartstrings. But good intentions may all too readily translate into patronising righteousness — especially if your own business, as was the case with Audi’s, doesn’t walk the talk.
The ensuing storm saw criticism of Audi’s all male executive team trend, knocking even the tiny-handed-bouffant-tweeter’s fake news updates off Twitter’s charts.
While some may argue that Audi’s message was well-meaning and that it was unfortunate to meet with such a robust backlash, it strikes me that the company was guilty of an arrogance born in a pre-Digital era. Back in the days of traditional broadcast advertising, the audience didn’t have a right to respond. In the past, an ad such as Audi’s might catalyse some grumbling among a special interest groups aware of its staffing composition but criticism would rarely spread beyond academia’s ivory towers.
Today’s different: the internet’s democratised marketing and it took just a matter of minutes for screengrabs of six pudgy white men (taken from the ‘members of the board’ page of Audi’s website) to start circulating across social media.
Bluffing about digital
Late last year Keith Weed, Unilever’s chief marketing officer, made a controversial but salient statement. He claimed most of the people who control marketing budgets don’t understand digital — that they are bluffing about digital based on what they read in marketing publications. In a call for the industry to improve training, he described three categories of marketers: digital natives — youngsters who were born into the digital world; people such as himself, who are in their 50s and are forced to engage with digital to have any form of relationship with their 20-year-old children; and whom he called the ‘lost generation’: people in their 30s and 40s who are neither digital natives nor do they have kids old enough to make them fully participate in the digital world.
Sadly, he reflected, this lost generation runs the marketing function in all too many companies and their decision-making is out of kilter with the environment in which they operate.
If brands want to avoid their own STD moment, they’d do well to heed Weed’s advice and make sure that everyone in the marketing team receives effective schooling in the risks, as well as the opportunities, digital presents.
Entrusting to the intern
In a pre-internet age, consumers would gather information from news media. Aware that a misplaced word could turn a positive story into a negative backlash, companies would generally appoint a single, highly trained individual to act as their corporate spokesperson/earned media custodian. Often this person would report directly to the CEO or at least have a dotted line to them.
But today, for some inexplicable reason, a surprising number of marketing heads feel confident entrusting their most-powerful consumer communication channel to the departmental intern. Maybe it’s because they think youngsters are better at Instagramming than they are.
One day, they’ll wake up to one of digital’s great paradoxes: that, more often than not, it’s the wrong content that goes viral — the carefully scripted and artfully shot YouTube video barely gets a view, but the inadvertent tweet goes global.
So, until we all take heed of Weed’s call, my guess is we’re in for a bumper set of STDs this year.
Charlie Stewart (@CStewart_ZA) is CEO of Rogerwilco, a multi-award-winning independent digital agency best known for its expertise with Drupal, SEO and content marketing. A Scot by birth, he moved to South Africa in the early 2000s in his quest to support a winning rugby team — a search he’s reluctantly forsaken. Together with Mark Eardley, he co-authored Business to Business Marketing: A Step by Step Guide, (Penguin Random House, 2016) and may be found on LinkedIn. Charlie contributes the monthly “Clicks ‘n Tricks” column, which looks at how brands are using digital channels to engage their customers, to MarkLives.
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