April 18, 2017

Lessons from Three Major Brands in Crisis

It is 2017. The Chicago Cubs are baseball’s world champions. LeBron James carried his Cleveland Cavaliers to shrug off a 3-0 deficit against the 73-win Golden State Warriors to bring his hometown its first basketball championship since 1948.  A man with no political experience defeated arguably one of the most highly qualified candidates in the history of United States presidential elections. And the U.K. is leaving Europe.

Simply put, 2017 is the year of the little guy, the underdog and the oppressed. It’s in the streets and on the lips of protest marchers around the world. Some call it populism, others call it social justice. But one thing is for sure: marketers are working furiously to capitalize on the zeitgeist that is the 99 percent.

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In the past few weeks, a number of globally recognized brands have come under fire for failing to appreciate the conversational tenor of this phenomenon.

In one case, Pepsi took an awkward stand, enlisting cultural icon Kendall Jenner as the face of their latest campaign. In the commercial, Jenner breaks through a crowd of protestors to offer a police officer a can of Pepsi. The problem? Jenner is not a member of any counter-cultural movement. She is a representative of the 1 percent, making her a questionable character to extend a carbonated olive branch to the authorities working crowd control.  

More recently, United Airlines came under fire as footage surfaced of a passenger being forcibly removed from an overbooked flight. While these actions—and the footage—were damning enough, the cherry on top came in the form of an unapologetic letter from CEO Oscar Munoz. The letter was circulated to employees, and was unsurprisingly leaked to the media immediately. In the letter, Munoz placed the blame squarely on the “unruly passenger”.

In a similar case, allegations have come forth in which Snapchat CEO Evan Spiegal was reported to have shut down employees from seeking to expand the company’s reach into India and Spain. His faulty argument was that Snapchat is for rich people, and shut down further conversation on the topic. These revelations have brought the company major public blowback, as Snap’s stock tumbled 1.5 percent in the first day of trading following the release of these disturbing details.

So what’s the takeaway?

In this day and age, marketers stand to gain if they can connect their organizations with a social cause. In fact, 90 percent of Americans are more likely to buy from a brand that backs social causes. That said, the modern consumer is savvy enough to recognize marketing when they see it. As a result, your brand has to actually put in the sweat equity and get to work in communities to truly cast themselves apart.

And in the cases of United and Snap, you must be particularly careful not to come across as unsympathetic. PR nightmares will invariably happen to any business if your doors are open for long enough. But if you think that you can marginalize large swathes of potential customers, or blame the victims of abuse, you’ve got no place running a business in 2017. 

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