The 3Ls That Can Kill Your Brand. Forever.

As marketers, most of us pride ourselves for adhering to truth in advertising and being honest in all we say about our products and brands. Copywriter, strategist, social or content marketers, we always tell the truth. Right? Actually you shouldn’t be so quick or sure to answer that question.

"Red Bull Gives You Wings"
This “Red Bull Gives You Wings” image from Michelle Ramey Photography via DeviantArt.com illustrates a brand slogan that cost the company millions.

As marketers, most of us pride ourselves for adhering to truth in advertising and being honest in all we say about our products and brands. Copywriter, strategist, social or content marketers, we always tell the truth. Right? Actually you shouldn’t be so quick or sure to answer that question.

In many cases, we marketers unwittingly lie about our products all of the time.

Remember that adjective in a social post about being the “leading” brand in your category, or claiming that you have a “scientifically proven” solution because one survey with a small sample was in your favor? We can say these things if there is at least one incidence of truth, right?

To many marketers, little claims which can be substantiated in at least one incident, e.g., leading for just one month’s sales reports, or scientifically proven in a study that only covered a small portion of your markets, are perfectly acceptable. Yet to many consumers, these claims are fodder for lawsuits, let alone the lost loyalty from those who don’t sue you.

Here’s a couple of examples from a Business Insider article, March 2016, about how those innocent words or “suggestions” can get brands in big trouble.

  • Tesco, a SuperMarket in the U.K., got caught up in a scandal for using horsemeat in its “beef” products. So the company decided to run an ad explaining how this happened. However, Tesco also chose to imply that this was happening industry-wide. That resulted in the U.K. advertising regulator banning the ad and about a $300 million drop in the brand’s value.
  • Kellogg’s got its hands slapped by the FTC for claiming its Rice Krispies could boost a child’s immunity as the FTC couldn’t find anything but dubious data to back that up.
  • And one of the most interesting lawsuits that actually cost a brand a lot of money and respect was over Red Bull’s tagline claim that their drink could “give you wings” and intellectual energy. Obviously just a fun slogan to most. However, a consumer claimed he had been drinking Red Bull for 10 years and had no wings to show for it, or improved intellect (that last claim rings true). But a judge bought it and Red Bull had to pay out $13 million and $10 to every customer buying its drink in the past 12 years. True story!

If you Google “honest advertising that works,” you’ll get a few articles featuring logic-defying “honest” ads that expose a product’s flaws, almost to the point of dishonesty of how bad something is. These include ads for real estate and hotels saying how awful their places are in ways that are so bad they spark curiosity and make one want to experience the property to see for themselves. So yep, they worked. By being “honest” to the edge of being “dishonest” about your product, some clever copywriters have discovered the power of sparking curiosity to sell products. But there’s a deeper lesson here.

Ground Your Brand

Do your brand values come from a strategic decision, or an organic statement of who you are and what you do? More and more, social media is proving that it should be the latter. The slippery impression of authenticity has a huge impact on how your target market and customers think of you. That’s why it’s time to ground your brand.

Do your brand values come from a strategic decision, or an organic statement of who you are and what you do? More and more, social media is proving that it should be the latter. The slippery impression of authenticity has a huge impact on how your target market and customers think of you. That’s why it’s time to ground your brand.

An Authentic Buzzword

I was at the Financial Times Future of Marketing event in New York City yesterday, where I got to hear many brands and agencies talk about various aspects of the future and present of marketing.

Anyone who’s been to a conference knows they’re the places buzzwords hatch, grow up and breed. And the buzzword I heard most yesterday was “authenticity.”

And the best articulation of it was the need to “ground your brand.”

“Every company right now, the one takeaway is ‘ground your brand’,” said Suzy Deering, CMO North America, eBay. “If you can’t stand for who you are; not change who you are but evolve who you are,” it’s going to show.”

(Note: I took these quotes live, so please forgive any slight discrepancies with other outlets.)

“I think we’ve absolutely bathed ourselves in complexity and acronyms for years,” said Hannah Grove, EVP and CMO of Boston-based financial services holding company State Street. “At State Street, we’ve really tried to break down the acronyms and just communicate.”

“We have to force ourselves as marketers to come back to the human question,” said Eric Reynolds, CMO, Clorox. This dictum forces Clorox to look at consumers not as consumers, but as people, which helps Reynolds and his team think of about what resonates with them as people.

How to Ground Your Brand

“Authenticity is a word people throw around that is very. Very hard to get right,” said Carter Murray, CEO of FCB.” And the thing about Social Media is you have to be true to who you are and what yo do, or you absolutely get eaten alive on social media.”

That’s where the usual discussion of authenticity and grounding your brand diverge. The key is getting down to the values and beliefs that are core to who you are as a company, and lining behind them.

It’s always the same question: “What business are we in, and what do we do every single day that is important?,” said Murray.

Murray was presenting with Reynolds, and spoke about the many companies, following the lead of successful mission-driven organizations like Tom’s Shoes, launch into  their own missions. But those missions don’t always resonate.

“I see people trying to invent meaning,” said Reynolds, “and if we’re not careful, more and more consumers will say, ‘Are those the values I really share? Are they just saying what they think I want them to say?’”

Timing Really Is Everything

The recent flaps over mailings sent out by Republican fundraisers reminded me of a rule put forth years ago by the late Dick Benson: “Direct mail should be scrupulously honest.” In case you don’t know, here’s the skinny. First, the use of the word “Census” on mailings by the Republican National Committee and the National Republican Congressional Committee led to Congressional passage of a bill last month that required new, clarifying language on the outer.

The recent flaps over mailings sent out by Republican fundraisers reminded me of a rule put forth years ago by the late Dick Benson: “Direct mail should be scrupulously honest.”

In case you don’t know, here’s the skinny. First, the use of the word “Census” on mailings by the Republican National Committee and the National Republican Congressional Committee led to Congressional passage of a bill last month that required new, clarifying language on the outer. Apparently, there had been some concern that people would mistake these efforts for the big Census Bureau mailing that was due to drop. Then, someone who actually had that complaint called the number on the RNC’s donation form, only to discover that it was for a phone sex line. Coming on the heels of news about lavish RNC spending, it’s been a tough few weeks for the party.

It’s easy to dismiss the second problem as merely a vendor mistake, one that appeared on only some of the mailings. It’s also easy to brush aside criticism of using “Census” on the outer. After all, it’s legal — it had passed muster with the USPS. And, it doesn’t really look like the Census mailer. It’s pretty obvious when opened that it’s just another issues poll, with leading questions, and a request for money. There’s nothing wrong with that, both parties have been mailing surveys for many years.

But it illustrates a bigger problem. A great national political party shouldn’t rely on a gimmick, like putting “Census”, or the IRS form — like “(2009) Return Enclosed” on the outer envelope to get someone to open it. Seriously, no one at the RNC thought this through, and saw this bad publicity coming? And, given how some of the Republican base feels about the Census, and especially, the IRS, it’s an especially puzzling choice of a teaser.

Twenty-five years ago, in the newsletter Who’s Mailing What!, Roger Craver wrote that to have a successful direct mail appeal, the “donors of principle,” the heart of any political organization, must be motivated by writing that conveys mission, selectivity, urgent need and effectiveness. The GOP was way ahead of the Democratic Party in this regard for decades, but as shown in the 2008 presidential race, not anymore. It’s going to be very interesting to see how both parties will energize the faithful in this election year.