Did you hear the one about the supermarket and the thousands of soldiers who died in war? One way to make your PR and marketing campaign current is to make it relevant to a recent event or a day of note. The hope is that your message will receive attention by being swept up in the news cycle or simply enjoy better reception because people are more aware of current affairs.
While this is a good idea in theory, there is also a significant risk of backlash. When Woolworths decided to commemorate Anzac Day, it chose to launch a campaign with the tagline ‘Fresh in our memories’—the ‘fresh’ clearly aligned with its company slogan ‘The Fresh Food People’.
Even though the supermarket brand justified its campaign by saying it was a heritage Australian company marking its respect, the campaign was pulled before Anzac Day due to social media backlash and a question over whether it complied with Anzac guidelines in regard to the use of protected terms in its marketing.
So what went wrong for Woolworths? Why did its Anzac Day campaign fail when other brands have successfully supported other events, such as for cancer awareness, while promoting their brand at the same time?
Risk of trivialisation
The main flaw is when a brand trivialises a cause or event by using it in their marketing. If people doubt, even a little, whether the organisation cares about them and the cause or event, then chances are that that campaign is on a slippery slope.
An example of trivialisation was when designer Kenneth Cole tweeted that the Egyptian riots for democratisation were actually just people getting into an uproar over his new spring collection. Way to underplay the status of a country on the brink of civil war, Mr Cole.
Perceived intent is also a major part of whether a campaign is successful. If it will only be perceived as being clearly for commercial gain, then the organisation needs to consider the cost of controversy.
Most would agree that the Woolworths example was in poor taste, with the intent leaning towards promotion rather than commemoration considering the deliberate use of the word ‘fresh’. If it were truly just a commemoration, the supermarket brand would not have tried to link Anzac Day to its own promotional agenda.
Another way a brand can alienate potential customers is if the news or event is out of alignment with the brand’s values. Consumers are not stupid – they can quickly determine if an organisation genuinely supports a cause or cares about a day of note. And not only will that affect their purchasing decisions, they will talk about it if it seems off—thanks to social media, word can spread far and fast.
When linking news/events to your marketing, consider if there is a strong and easily recognisable alignment between the cause, brand and campaign, and if your organisation can demonstrate authenticity.
Having said all that, some brands can get away with controversy, especially if ‘outrage publicity’ is their bread and butter. However, those brands walk a fine line. They need to consider if the controversy will isolate or put off key target markets. If it gets people talking, shocked, and causes a backlash in people who were never their ideal customer, they might consider that an effective campaign. If the controversy has a negative effect, however, particularly with key stakeholders like suppliers, influencers, customers and potential customers, then those businesses need to ask if the collateral damage is worth the attention.
Before launching a campaign tethered to news/events, ask yourself:
- Does this campaign promote the business above the cause, event or news?
- Is the overriding message to customers that this is for commercial gain?
- Will this campaign seem tokenistic rather than congruent with my business’ values?
If you answered ‘yes’ to any of these questions, you’re increasing the risk of backlash.