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April is the Cruellest Month
by Suzanne Pope
It’s been a humbling few weeks for brands. What, if anything, have they learned?
The past few weeks have not been good ones for the dignity of our industry. Perhaps the most consoling news was that the US Airways employee responsible for that pornographic tweet will not be fired for the mistake. (It’s entirely possible the “employee” is, in fact, an unpaid intern, but let’s not dwell on that.)
General Mills showed similar quick thinking over controversy regarding a quiet change to its legal policies. The New York Timesrevealed that under General Mills’s new legalese, a simple “like” on the company’s Facebook pages might revoke a consumer’s right to sue — so Facebook users flocked to those pages for the sole purpose of saying they wouldn’t be back.
By Saturday of the Easter long weekend, General Mills tweeted a complete about-face.
In corporate terms, taking just three days to undo a bad decision showed impressive flexibility and nimbleness on the part of General Mills. It also showed a realism about brands that still, remarkably, seems to elude some companies. Way back in 2001 — before Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, heck, even before MySpace — WPP’s Jeremy Bullmore delivered a brilliant speech on the harsh truths about brands in the digital age, and the passage of time has only strengthened his argument.
Central to Bullmore’s talk was the idea that companies can make and own products, but they cannot make or own brands. That power belongs exclusively to consumers, because a brand is nothing more than the emotions and fantasies housed in the mind of each customer. And because no two customers are alike, a brand has, potentially, hundreds of millions of expressions, even though those expressions might represent only slight variations on a theme. Bullmore went on to speculate that CEOs neglect thinking about their brands simply to avoid the discomfort of pondering something so amorphous; many feel happier focusing on spreadsheets, which are both literally and figuratively in black and white.
But for all the evidence that brands can’t be controlled, attempts are still made. Consider this new ad sponsored by The Beer Store, the retail outlet that controls most beer sales in Ontario:
Apart from the over-the-top dialogue and performances, the spot is notable for its attempt to posit The Beer Store as a quasi-governmental body that safeguards the interests of the vulnerable. The public backlash has been swift, merciless and completely unsurprising. As users of social media were quick to point out, three foreign brewers own The Beer Store, and they are obviously most concerned with avoiding retail competition.
When I searched for that Beer Store ad, I expected it might have been removed out of sheer embarrassment. But no, it’s still up there, and it appears the “brand” is doubling down on its misguided efforts. In an interview published April 15 in the National Post, Jeff Newton of Canada’s National Brewers was quoted as saying, “There’s no need to apologize for people getting the facts. That’s what we intend to continue to do, continue to have that public debate, continue to have that discussion on the basis of fact.” Newton even went on to describe all that social-media ridicule as “public dialogue,” though I can’t imagine what sort of dialogue would follow the tweet about the pregnant woman and the toddler.
If brands could be formed and strengthened by the chanting of mantras, Newton would be in excellent shape. He would spend a few weeks repeating sound bites about “facts,” “discussion” and “dialogue,” and the whole convenience-store thing would go away. But unfortunately for The Beer Store, brands are judged not just by their words, but by their behaviour as well. For decades, the experience of buying beer in Ontario has been indifferent to downright unpleasant, and it’s always been inconvenient. The Beer Store has enjoyed a monopoly, and has behaved accordingly. People have thus inferred that customer satisfaction is not this brand’s priority. Against decades of unchanging brand behaviour, a few weeks’ worth of brand messaging will be worse than useless. As Jeremy Bullmore pointed out in 2001, consumers who believe a brand has taken their business for granted “will be totally and brutally unforgiving. And their desertion will have something of vengeance about it.” Indeed, if beer soon becomes more widely available in Ontario, Jeff Newton might have to consider the possibility that his attempt at building his brand actually hastened its demise.
Toronto freelance copywriter Suzanne Pope is the founder of Ad Teachings.