Mitch Joel/brand love

The price of brand love

In Ideas by Mitch Joel

Brands can now see the downside of being personal rather than personable, writes Mitch Joel, president of US digital agency Mirum and author of Six Pixels of Separation and CTRL ALT Delete.

Be careful what you wish for. Never has a sentiment been so true like it is for brands these days. We have never lived in a more politically driven and open-social environment at the same time.

Brands should be spinning like a top (in fact, a lot of them are). If you think back to the early days of social media, there was a commonly held sentiment that brands came into social media kicking and screaming (for the most part). This is a fact.

Yes, there were brands that embraced the ethos of The Cluetrain Manifesto, the groundbreaking work that highlighted the concept that “markets are conversations”. They saw social media as a fantastic way to have real interactions between real human beings. Still, the vast majority of big, corporate brands had to re-invent their brand philosophy to better understand what it means to connect in this social era.

Many started off with blogging – and the early social media platforms – as a way to counter-balance against the many individual voices that were now asking questions, complaining and trying to connect to a brand that, clearly, never had an operating procedure for how to deal with individuals in an open and public way.

Some would say that this made companies and brands much more human … and that’s a good thing, right? In theory, this is not a good thing. It’s a great thing.

Social media (and the openness that it brought) truly empowered a brand’s values to come alive. You could read – in their tweets – how serious they were about pleasing consumers that had been wronged, and just how interested they really were in acquiring new consumers by how they engaged and connected and answered questions. It was less about being a brand on social media and much more about how to be a brand in a community with others.

On the other hand, it also became abundantly clear how many brands struggled with these marketing channels. It was (and still is) amazing to see how many brands treat these digital connection opportunities like a form of advertising or broadcasting … or a mixture of the two. Nothing more. Nothing less.

As brands connect more, are they really more human?

Here we are – close to 15 years since social media became a prominent channel for brands to connect. What we now see are brands who live (and die) by their values … and shared values with their consumers.

It would be hard to argue that this is a bad thing but it’s been a strange evolution of culture, society, politics and technology lately. And, yes, it has all come to a head. In essence, a brand can be more open and transparent, and still be a victim to outside sources that would have them scurrying back to the times when a brand was something you bought – not something that you engaged/connected with as a consumer.

In the past short while, we’ve seen a major automobile brand shocked to find out that an investigation in the UK revealed it was funding terrorist organisations, because their ads were being shown on extremists’ online channels. The issue was an unintended consequence of their programmatic/algorithmic technology. We’ve seen a major e-commerce platform fight with consumers and employees because a right-wing media organisation purchased their platform to sell merchandise on.

We’ve seen a highly respected Silicon Valley innovator dismiss themselves from the US President’s business advisory council after consumers started a movement to delete their app. We’ve seen a major fashion retailer take it from all sides because they stopped carrying the fashion line of the US President’s daughter. We’ve even seen one of the world’s top YouTubers (one that brands loved to attach on to) lose an entire revenue stream after posting racist content.

We have seen more than this. There is much more to come.

“[Consumers] want brands to be open and to stand for something, but when something goes awry the pitchforks are out.”Mitch Joel

Maybe former US radio talk-show host Howard Stern got it right. In 2012, a major fast-food chain came under fire because one of their leaders took a position against same-sex marriage. While the brand was known to maintain highly religious and traditional values, it lit the world up. I distinctly remember listening to Stern talk up the subject, and he summarised it perfectly. He said (and, I’m paraphrasing here): “Why don’t they shut up and just sell chicken?”

Can brands still be human without getting tangled in these sensitive, political, cultural and religious issues?

Earlier this year, I posted an article titled “Be more human without being too personal to build your brand”. The crux of this post was that you can be a very personable brand (either a corporate or personal one) without being too personal. It’s not the only way, but brands are willingly (and unwillingly) being pulled into these social media, traditional media and public battles that are driven by customer values and how they may oppose those of the brands.

It’s interesting. The consumer now believes that it’s not about what you sell and the price of it, but what you stand for. Brands are being pulled into battles because their ads have inadvertently been tied to a bad situation. What’s unique now is that the brand response is no longer binary. In today’s environment, brands that have swiftly removed themselves from the situation have often not been applauded but hurt more for bending and cowering to another side.

Brands that have pointed the blame elsewhere (like, say, on the technology) have been bashed for being so out of touch with how business works these days. Brands that have distanced themselves from influencers that have run amok are still accused of using them for when it works for the brand but bailing on them when times get tough (meaning “not authentic”). And more.

It’s a slippery slope

Many business professionals believe in having a more holistic approach to crisis management. They start developing strategies and scenarios, and have dark posts ready based on myriad situations. Still, with the current climate, it’s hard to figure out what the course of action should be.

What are we really seeing? It feels like a world where consumers want brands to be more personal. They want brands to be open and to stand for something, but when something goes awry (and it always does), the pitchforks are out.

Consumers seem to not be forgiving, in the same way that they might be with a family member or friend. In turn, the brands aren’t really accepting responsibility, so much as pointing the finger at something else, laying blame elsewhere and excusing themselves with a caveat.

Anybody in a substantive relationship knows that the only thing more powerful than “I love you” is “I’m sorry”. And yes, there is a period after that “I’m sorry” because adding anything else negates the apology. “I’m sorry, but …” “I’m sorry, and …” “If you want me to apologise, I will …” and on and on are not apologies. So, here’s a loving message for a brand: if you get stuck (and it looks like you will, in an unwittingly way), try “sorry”. No caveats.

Wondering if that’s even enough these days?

The original article was published here.


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About the Author
Mitch Joel

Mitch Joel

Mitch Joel is president of Mirum – a global digital marketing agency operating in close to 20 countries. His first book, Six Pixels of Separation, named after his successful blog and podcast is a business and marketing bestseller. His second book, CTRL ALT Delete, was named one of the best business books of 2013 by Amazon. Learn more at: