By Mark Di Somma
Some brands and some sectors have baggage. They’re seen as bad. Or they have a reputation for behaving badly. Or they are still trying to win back confidence after a disaster. Or they’re part of a sector that people don’t like. Or a segment of the population would like them to go away. For whatever reason they can’t seem to convince their detractors that they have good intentions. Critics love to hate on them. They attack these brands for what they sell, what they support, what they don’t support, what they say or don’t say. They cast doubt on their motivations. They draw attention to their shortfalls … I have no problem with this in one sense. The right to examine and critique is a sign of a robust democracy. So is the right to dissent.
But the receiving end of that negativism is a scary place to be if you’re a CEO or a brand manager and the thought of being in the crossfire, or the expense and impact of the experience itself, has tended to prompt a range of set-plays from brands in ‘sensitive’ sectors.
• Some brands withdraw. In essence, they go offline. Or they restructure their way out of the limelight. Or they push their product brands (that no-one associates with them) further into the market and close out their corporate presence to public view.
• Some brands fight. They throw money and marketing muscle at getting coverage for their side of the story. Stepping forward, they put themselves in the media and duke it out. Or they look to right the “wrong” messages by re-quantifying the impact they have or by pointing out that what they are doing is legal or by highlighting the ramifications if they were not allowed to do what they do or by stating that this is a rights issue.
• Some brands dodge. They hit the opaque button and initiate strategies to confuse, fudge, downplay, delay, avoid, deny and/or frustrate.
• Some sectors redefine. They accuse critics (activists and/or the NGOs) of a beat up and of holding them to reputational ransom. They then look to set standards for their own behaviours that they believe are reasonable and practical, and they point to the economic and wider benefits that their activity bestows. They then report back against the standards that they have set.
I’ve spoken with a number of brand managers about why brands that feel besieged act in these ways, and the response I hear most often is that they feel they need to defend themselves, they need to counter the personal and professional attacks that come their way and that the critics are over-simplifying situations, deliberately misrepresenting actions or simply out to get them. These perceptions quickly lead to a feeling of being put upon and a wish to put the record straight.
Completely understandable from their point of view. But for the most part, none of the reactions above works to change attitudes – in the sense that none of them convinces anyone to alter their view of the brand in question. That’s because often these strategies are based on reputational management rather than reputational disruption – on dealing with kerfuffles and highlighting trivia rather than addressing the dilemmas. Responses, not solutions. Rebuttal, not conversation.
Some of these approaches were more effective when the people who had the media had the floor. Now everyone has platforms, the media are much more fragmented and headlines are the new link bait.
One of the key reasons people are so hostile to brands they’ve decided they don’t like is because they then deem them to be self-serving, greedy, extremist and close-minded. The instinct of every marketer working for these brands is to negate this; to look for ways to turn those attitudes around. To a sceptic, of course, what comes back sounds too good to be true. Or at least to be the whole truth. Because, of course, too much of it is. It’s simply counter-argument.
You don’t fight a reputation for being “bad” by just telling people you’re good. Or that you’ve done good. Or that you will do good. Or by claiming to be less “bad” than the other guy. You fight a reputation for “bad” by revealing that there’s things you’re grappling with, that you’re human, that the issues are complicated, that you are open to suggestions and that you are prepared to be uncomfortably honest and that you are looking for opportunities to make changes where you can.
That prompts three questions:
Who should a brand try to convince?
What should they try to convince them of?
And what are the best ways for them to do so?
Let’s assume for the sake of this post that a brand sincerely wants to do something to improve its relationships with stakeholders and to talk about the issues that people are clearly concerned about. If you’re the manager of such a brand, where do you even start to deal with the ill-feeling that the very mention of your brand name generates? How do you stop people shutting down before you’ve even opened your mouth?
I’d start here. Answer this question honestly: Where’s the hurt? (What gets people so wound up about you?) Is it what you do, what you sell, who you are or who you’ve been? And how do people know that? What are they being told, by whom and why? Hold those answers.
Next, I would look to get agreement internally on three simple principles:
• “Let’s be considerate but not weak. Let’s agree to truly listen and to consider what we are being told with open minds. Let’s weigh up arguments as they are presented to us and do so as impartially and fairly as possible. But let’s also agree that we won’t be swayed by political convenience or ferocity of dissonance into cowering or being insincere because it feels better to do so.”
• “Let’s separate the reasonable from the unreasonable. Let’s get very good at distinguishing signals and noise. And let’s have clear criteria for doing that, that are not self-serving. Let’s be sound critics as well as responsible defenders of our own actions.”
• “Let’s treat objections as opportunities. Let’s look for ways to actually absorb the good points that our critics are making about our sector and our business (not just the ones that we are already tackling or the ones we feel comfortable about) and let’s present those as challenges for our innovation programmes to solve.”
Then I would look to build relationships with those who are open to listening to what the brand has to say, as follows:
1. Find the fundamental point you all agree on. Identifying points of agreement gives people a linking point with you and encourages at least some level of dialogue rather than blank dismissal. This isn’t about spinning. It is what it appears to be – a search for common ground. State that idea as your greatest goal. (Chances are this should also be the basis for your purpose.) Don’t be dismayed if this point seems at a very high level. At least when you find this you have a point of agreement – a starting point for conversation.
2. Internally, negotiate two sets of rules around that fundamental point. First – what your commitment to that point means you will look to do. Second – what you can’t (now) do in good faith because of that commitment.
3. Publish those commitments – and invite discussion. Then listen. Treat the feedback you get as input not criticism. Engage with those groups who are looking for real outcomes (not just a fight) and treat those engagements the way you would negotiations. Raise the challenges you receive with your innovation team. Work with others to find real answers.
4. Set the bar high. Go after the real knotty problems not the easy wins or the things you already have answers for. Identify the elephants in the room, explain the complications, show why these aren’t easy things to solve and talk about why they actually need to be solved, by when and what the ramifications are if they aren’t solved.
5. Report on what you’re doing and where it’s getting you. Don’t just report the good you’re doing. Talk openly about what’s not working and why. Talk through what you are committed to putting right, and how you will do that. Discuss what continues to bother and challenge you. Open a forum for suggestions. Ask for help in solving the issue(s). Specify the stumbling points.
6. Don’t expect miracles. This isn’t a turn-around strategy. It’s a turn-with strategy. It’s a long-term, collaborative, refocusing of how a business or a sector functions in the world. Be prepared to change, really change. That’s not easy. If you’re genuine, this will raise questions that make everyone uncomfortable at some point. It will cause people to pause. It may lead to breakthroughs. It may not. If nothing else, it will make a brand/sector and consumers think more deeply about what is done and what is judged and why those opinions are held – and that’s not a bad thing. It’s certainly a lot better than shouting or ignoring one another.
Photo of “The bridges I burn will light my way home” taken by DieselDemon, sourced from Flickr