Why big brands are screwing up

By Jen Neumann / Guest Column

A tone deaf ad from Pepsi. A hacked attempt to integrate Burger King into your Amazon Echo or Google Home device. A Nivea ad with inadvertent (we hope) white supremacist messaging. And most notably, a PR nightmare that United Airlines brought on themselves.

There’s been conjecture about whether Pepsi launched its now-infamous Kendall Jenner ad with the intention of stirring the conversation – and with the plan to pull the commercial to heighten the drama and gain a news cycle that wouldn’t have normally occurred for most of its ads.

Are brands, in general, intentionally bungling their marketing efforts in an age when the news cycle is short, attention spans are shorter and it’s a race to the bottom for quality?

I don’t think so. Even though there are layers and layers of approvals that need to happen at companies like Pepsi and Nivea, I believe what we are seeing is an insular approach, which, when paired with a little too much of the “fail fast” fervor, creates the opportunity for the widescale failures that happened in the aforementioned cases.

It’s always interesting to look at advertising, and say, “Wow, someone signed off on that.” The pendulum always swings, and it’s the middle ground where common sense and solutions are found. The era where advertising took years of development and endless focus groups are gone, thankfully, but on the other hand, the pressure to produce content as quickly as possible, along with a lack of study in good old behavioral science is what’s driving poor decisions.

When it comes to the United Airlines debacle, what we are seeing is a lack of control and process, as well as not following or potentially having practiced a crisis communications plan. I’m not sure if the CEO went rogue or if they really thought that a half-hearted, defensive apology would be sufficient. It shows a lack of understanding of how the world works. Sincerity matters. Transparency is the new standard.

So what’s the long-term effect of all of these strange blunders? It may push the pendulum back in the other direction.

Over the long-term, the damage to these brands will probably be minimal. If you drink Pepsi, you probably won’t switch to Coke. If you fly, you will probably still end up on a United flight at some point. The long-term view – assuming brands do not continue down the path of reckless and poorly thought out communications – is one of continued use and growth. If they continue to release insensitive content, however, I predict we will see a decrease in the value and consumption of these products and services.

The moral of the story is that marketing is a process. Skipping steps, not doing the homework and rushing to produce will result in continued blunders and decreased brand equity.

The phrase “All PR is good PR” is an excuse made by the lazy and inexperienced. If Martin Luther King, Jr.’s daughter calls you out – as she did following Pepsi’s ad – it’s definitely a failure.

Put in the work. Hire the experts. It’s an investment in your brand that, if managed poorly, will cost more than the short spike in awareness will gain.

Jen Neumann is a partner with DeNovo Alternative Marketing in Cedar Rapids.