Every organization, no matter the size, must diligently protect its message and reputation. By that, I mean the way that people interpret and remember the impression the organization makes in its product, service, and communications.
For nearly every product you’ve used or experienced, you can probably remember something specific about it. Maybe it was the high or low quality, the cost, the service provided, or the efforts made to fix an issue. For some products, it will be the faux pas of a marketing campaign gone wrong.
First Things First
Before messages can even get confused, there must be a clear corporate message for starters. For many, this starts with a mission statement that truly encompasses a company’s objectives and ideals. It should clearly and succinctly state what a company will do, how it will do it, and the value it provides. But it cannot be written, framed, and forgotten.
From a marketing perspective, things like corporate ID and branding are critical aspects of creating and maintaining a recognizable name. It includes things like logos and taglines designed to be seen. Because it does not change often, there is a timelessness to corporate logos and designs that must last for many years.
These are basic starters for any company and seldom cause an issue. However, marketing campaigns and business development activities are constantly changing and need regular oversight too, to protect your image. You must control the marketing messages that people experience.
Send and Receive
Marketing activities include dozens, and sometimes hundreds, of different types of impressions. From sales calls to trade shows and email campaigns to advertising. These touchpoints all create an impression, and there is no way that every single one can be reviewed and pre-planned perfectly. If you’ve ever had a rogue salesman who promises impossible things or degrades the organization in any way, you know what I mean.
Even the planned campaigns used to promote new designs and benefits can go very wrong. Do you remember some marketing and advertising blunders? Like Ford, who used the print image of women bound and gagged in the trunk of a car? Um, I can only think that no women worked in the automotive manufacturer’s advertising department. “I’ve got an idea,” said someone, and no one saw the problem? The intended message of increased cargo space in the trunks was completely overshadowed by the depiction of women subjected to restraint, at the very least.
Another example comes from a large insurance brokerage who offered lots of choices to their prospective clients. No matter the medical need, the company had an offering to satisfy it. That is a strong statement that got lost in an email campaign whose copy began, “Eeny, Meeny, Miney, Mo …” If you think this phrase ends with “catch a tiger by the toe,” then you are probably as young as those who came up with the doomed campaign. The backlash from the African American population was intense and costly.
The cost in dollars and reputation is significant. Both the budget and a company’s reputation are at risk if organizations are not careful in their choice of words and images. But it is avoidable.
Prevention is Key
Since there is unlimited creativity in words and images, the ideas good enough to make it to the drawing board must still be vetted to see how the message is received. Not everyone will be offended by sexual innuendo, comedy, or seemingly innocent children’s rhymes. But some might be. We all have different tolerance levels for what is funny or inappropriate, but preventing public outcry and lost customers (and lost money and reputation) is critical.
The thing is, that if even one small percentage of people are outraged at a racial slur, the damage is so easily magnified with the power of social media. So, cover your tracks by getting help. Use focus groups from within the company first, and go beyond if needed. And listen to them! The insurance company mentioned above had people within the organization explain the potential problem, and it was disregarded. The input of one single contrarian might be enough to save the company a great deal of embarrassment. Sometimes, even the most creative ideas are not good for business, and we need to get out of our own way.
Own Up to It
This seems to be a tough one. We all make mistakes, but we simply need to do our best to fix them. Pulled ads and contrite apologies go a long way to help soothe irate customers and calm public outcry and stabilize a chaotic situation. In addition to taking full responsibility for errors, a sincere acknowledgment of the failure in judgment, knowledge, research (or whatever) helps. Add to that the plan to prevent such issues going forward, and you right the ship with reasonable confidence.
The big lesson? Be. Very. Careful. Even if you think there is nothing potentially harmful in an email campaign or ad series, examine the message closely before you publish, print, or post online. Think about those who will see it. Use varied groups of people representing all sexes, various ethnicities, and ages. You’ll protect your company image with a well-controlled marketing message that resonates well with your customers.