New Rules For A New Reality Of Tribalism, Activism, And Loss of Trust

Managing and protecting a company’s brand is one of the most important jobs of the Chief Marketing Officer, The Chief Executive Officer, and the Board. Why? Because the brand is one of the most financially valuable assets in a business, particularly a consumer business.  

The challenge is that brand development and maintenance has always been an endeavor which requires a blend of art and science, a balance between short-term sales needs and the value of building longer-term equity.

But the challenges facing brands have gotten far more complex, and the stakes have grown higher when marketing in the #FakeNews Era. It used to be that marketers’ greatest challenge was convincing a consumer to try their product and stick with it―beer, apps, cars, what have you. Today, the next generation of growth leaders must now address a highly polarized marketplace, in which consumers are energized by their tribal affiliations to take action for or against brands based on their perceived values, beliefs, and biases. They also face grim potential consequences―ranging from share loss to job loss―when things go wrong.

These factors used to be exceptional events. Now they have become the status quo for marketers in 2022 – when an influencer tweet, actual news and events, or a viral video can immediately embroil a brand in politics.  And especially so in a country (if not world) more polarized than ever, the costs of a misstep, or even simply not taking a necessary step, are higher than ever.

We can debate whether brands should be proactive in taking public stances. But there is no question that being a values-based, purpose-driven brand is a good thing, particularly if your target market is coming of age this century.

In this new market reality, brands need to think through what to do if and, more likely when, their brand is brought into the public square – whether through employees’ actions, management decisions (e.g., location of a plant) or a public figure calling out a brand or company.

Surprisingly, many brands remain unprepared.  As stewards of one of the largest financial assets in the business – the brand – CMOs need to be better prepared to protect and enhance their brand in a world of fake news new reality of  fake news, tribalism, activism, and a fundamental loss of trust. Given the stakes and the risks, every marketing team need, at a minimum, to have alternative strategic plans – and short-term tactics – ready for to respond and adapt to rapidly unfolding trends, misinformation, or news that can either augment or diminish their brand assets. Having a more robust scenario planning process (with likely alternative futures that are fully fleshed out) is even better.

The last generation of CMOs grew up in relatively stable times. So responding to tweets, fake news or having their brand exposed in a scandal or political context was less of an immediate problem.  The threats we have seen to brands have come from natural and expected trends in specific industries, such as streaming and cord-cutting changing the consumer technology space. 

The landscape has changed fundamentally in the past decade. In stable times, we didn’t  see political instability imminently threatening brands. Now #FakeNews era, there are also political scenarios that must be considered.  And with social media, brands that hesitate are lost.  #DeleteUber was not caused by a conscious decision by top management to ignore the plight of people stranded at airports in New York City (in fact, they decided not to let their algorithm up prices that night), but rather by Uber, unlike Lyft, not being immediately ready to please its market by registering resistance to the Trump policy.  “No comment” is no longer a reasonable response.

These threats can be significantly mitigated by building a flexible “Plan B”.

Should your brand take social and political stands or keep quiet? What are the benefits and risks of weighing in versus sitting on the sidelines? Is embracing brand purpose good for business or wasteful self-indulgence? Can a CEO’s misbehavior in a taxi cab one day bring a PR crisis the next? What happens when the public calls you out on a political position you didn’t even mean to take? This book tackles questions like these, outlining how a company must carefully navigate the waters of the #FakeNews Era, where moral scrutiny and consumer outrage abound. Here you’ll find strategic and tactical guidance on how to prepare yourself for what may lie ahead, because you won’t have time to puzzle it out when you get that dreaded late-night call from PR.

As difficult and nuanced as these choices and decisions, and trade-offs are, they must be made. Attempting to please (or at least not alienate) everyone, often ends up pleasing no one. If you aren’t prepared to assert your values and brand in a moment of public stress, you are likely to be criticized by everyone.  Worse, if you have an ill-advised short-term reaction, it could threaten the long-term equity of your brand.  The best course is to work with a team (outsiders and insiders) to identify the possible events that could bring your brand into the glare of the spotlight and think through the principles and values of your brand and culture to develop guidelines as to what you could do and/or say should those or similar events become a reality.  Have a team identified and a mode of communication so you are as ready as possible to make and take a stand when your brand needs to talk or act.

To help the next generation of growth leaders better navigate the new brand environment, I write the book Marketing In The #Fakenews Era: New Rules For A New Reality Of Tribalism, Activism, And Loss of Trust.  You can get a copy here.

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