Branding Gone Bad

We spend so much time, love, and money on our brands, it’s devastating when we discover that we’re actually doing more harm than good. And it happens much more often than marketeers are willing to admit.

Advertising — and particularly online advertising — is powerful stuff. It’s sort of like firearms and clay targets. We need to treat high-budget ad spending like we would a loaded gun. It can be a great device to hit a target with, but you need to be pretty darn sure you don’t have it pointed at your foot.

I use this strained metaphor because we’re not just wasting ammunition (media dollars) when we miss. We can actually harm the brand when we hit the wrong people or hit them with the wrong message.

A couple of instances of an advertising lapse in judgment jump to mind. The first one is my own, when I was dealing with De Beers (the diamond people) as a client back when I was at J. Walter Thompson. Our initial online efforts attempted to adapt our creative messages based on response performance. Over time, the ads morphed into what might be generously described as a Kmart BlueLight Special motif. Although our response rates grew and grew, it took us some focus groups to realize that we were doing more harm than good to the brand. Thank goodness this effort was aimed at small, experimental audiences.

My favorite offline example can be seen up and down Route 95 on the East Coast of the U.S. When you enter many of the rest-stop restrooms, you are first exposed to a sign on the door: “This facility cleaned by Lysol.” There’s a bright picture of the Lysol logo, with little lines drawn on it to make it look as though it’s gleaming.

The problem? Anyone who’s ever been to a Route 95 restroom knows that it takes all of 30 seconds for such signs become covered with the smudgy grime that coats everything at such rest stops. After seeing the grimy sign, you step into a room that has a smell best left undescribed. For the next few minutes in the bathroom, all you can think about is the fear that Lysol has also been in your own bathroom, allowing similar toxic hazards. There are few associative powers stronger than those of smell and fear.

Whenever I see Lysol at the supermarket now, I physically cringe. Its advertising effort has managed to give me honest-to-goodness shudders whenever I think about the brand. I wish I could find out how much money it paid for the privilege.

Indulging my already-stretched metaphor about marketing and firearms (and guaranteeing that my email box will bulge tomorrow), I went and visited the National Rifle Association (NRA) site to see what sort of rules it suggests for handling dangerous weapons. Sure enough, it has a list of rules of careful handling that I think can be well adapted to the marketing arts:

  • “Always keep the gun pointed in a safe direction.” Obviously, you need to hit the right target with branding messages.
  • “Always keep your finger off the trigger until ready to shoot.” Advertising budgets must be parceled out to numerous product managers, but a higher-level brand official needs to control the firing mechanism for marketing campaigns. Without such oversight, a lot of negative branding can occur.
  • “Always keep the gun unloaded until ready to use.” Never pay a media vehicle up front.
  • “Know your target and what is beyond.” Certain messages to certain targets need to be exclusive. When convincing teens that it’s cool to drink a beverage, you don’t want them to see the message that went to their moms about how nutritious it is. When they do, it causes the collateral damage of negative branding.
  • “Know how to use the gun safely. Before handling a gun, learn how it operates.” Advertisers without experience in a particular medium will make mistakes. It’s a cost of learning borne by their clients. In the online space, this is a necessary evil, but it can be minimized by deliberate effort and training.
  • “Use only the correct ammunition for your gun.” Certain media lend themselves to certain types of objectives. Often, it doesn’t make sense to conduct direct marketing with network television. It sometimes doesn’t make sense — often due to cost — to do branding online, unless a competitive deal on price and targeting can be acquired.
  • “Wear eye and ear protection as appropriate.” My cynical side wants to interpret this rule in the fashion I fear most ad agencies do: Make sure you avoid the flash and noise that you don’t want to hear. In other words, when you get negative feedback on the results of the campaign, ignore it and focus instead only on the positive feedback. This makes for ignorantly happy clients. Of course, that would be unethical, so I suggest this rule instead be interpreted literally, advising that media buyers wear goggles and headphones during work hours.
  • “Never use alcohol or over-the-counter, prescription, or other drugs before or while shooting.” Many clients learn this the hard way. Those client service people at the agency can be very convincing over shrimp scampi and three bottles of Chardonnay. More budgets have been overbloated by good dinners and alcohol than by any real performance measure. Advertiser beware.

These are pretty good rules to live by. For instance, they would counsel against the recent phenomenon of selling the naming rights to kids and other unpredictable “properties.” Heck, I know I don’t want my brand on some kid who’s likely to grow up to become the sort of criminals my brother and I were when we were teenagers. Who knows who will be the target audience and what type of strange message might be later implied by unpredictable contexts.

It might be as bad as the old Comiskey Park in Chicago. The stadium was named after Charles A. Comiskey, an old White Sox owner who didn’t realize that in later decades his name would be associated with the urban blight that eventually surrounded his ballpark.

I think the NRA is onto something. Keep that thing pointed in the right direction, and know what’s behind the target.

Unfortunately, our industry doesn’t reward honesty when it comes to admitting targeting and messaging mistakes. Advertisers would do well to make sure that they get real analyses of what their messages do to their brands in the various constituent audiences. Punishing agencies by reducing budgets and re-assigning accounts will only lead to overly happy performance reports.

And, believe me, a lot of advertising out there is performing dangerously in the wrong direction.

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