Commercially skewed radar: when brands commercialise public grief/BRW

Commercially skewed radar: when brands commercialise public grief

Dawn service in Swansea, NSW. Photo: Kim-Cherie Davidson.

The fight for a voice in the marketplace has never been more aggressive. The online world has generated an influx of alternative brand real estate to traditional media – and the speed from campaign concept to coverage has never been faster.

Marketers are always seeking opportunities to get the attention of consumers, command attention and be known for innovative campaigns. But when is it time for a brand to say nothing?

Recently we’ve seen multiple brands commercialise sensitive public tragedies.

Headlines sell papers and the Courier Mail received a barrage of public complaints when it splashed the front page title, ‘Bride and Seek’ in relation to the disappearance of Stephanie Scott. Some defended the headline, which was published ahead of the findings of the victim’s murder.

In the same month, Woolworths launched its ‘Fresh in our memories’ Anzac Day campaign which was pulled following social media backlash and potentialcompliance exposure surrounding the use of protected phrases and terms in its marketing. Woolworths justified its campaign saying it was never its intention to offend, and as a heritage Australian company, was marking its respect.

Similarly, Target stores, on advice from the Department of Veterans’ Affairswithdrew Anzac-branded products from the shelves, including hoodies, beanies and stubby holders.

Seasoned marketers will often leverage recognised days as a means to relate and profit from its consumer market. But how do some brands seem to execute campaigns that do not draw the same negative attention? Why doesVictoria Bitter not get reprimanded for its Raise a Glass campaign and lifestyle TV channels can actively push light-hearted Anzac biscuit segments as part of a day that for many is about remembrance and grieving?

It comes down to perceived intention, brand alignment and history and the likelihood of people to negatively hijack a campaign and cause further offence.

Controversial issues like religion, violence, racism and politics, tragedies such as loss of life, serious illness, public disasters like floods, fires and sieges and commemorative moments are generally times when brands should take a conscious assessment of its marketing effort. Is it really the time to spruik the latest flavoured milk or trivialise a situation?

The disconnect may arise from the insular focus of some businesses on their primary market – utilising strategies to build awareness, market share and sales amongst their consumers. However, a brand reputation relies on the perceptions and impressions of the complete spectrum of stakeholders – government, general public, consumers, media and communities – anyone who could have a vested interest in the messaging.

Before embarking on brand communication, these stakeholders and potential back-lash needs to be evaluated. This doesn’t mean a brand necessarily needs to withdraw. Some brands have an established reputation for causing controversy, and disrupting some part of the community may actually workfor them in gaining a favourable perception with its key audience.

Alternatively if there’s strong alignment between the cause, brand and campaign message then brands dominate with a positive outcome and little reputational risk, as they are usually able to demonstrate genuine support of the cause.

The digital world means that within seconds – control of message and reputation can overturn. And this is where brands are coming undone.

Social media relies on immediacy, but the negative of that is that brands start to skip corners, missing the proper consideration, checks and approvals that brands have traditionally undertaken.

It’s not just the actual messaging that needs to be considered, it’s the timing, the medium, the communicator and the presentation of the content.

There certainly is a fine line between demonstrating corporate social responsibility and commercial gain.

Nicole Reaney is a director at InsideOut Public Relations.


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