Social Commentary in Authentic Brand Messaging

Should brands act, behave and communicate like people? Authenticity must be the measure. The content of any social commentary needs to be driven from the core principles of what the brand stands for — rather than from a cookie-cutter response at what competitors may be doing or saying.

Should brands act, behave, and communicate like people?

I’m sick and angry. It may seem like 1968 this past week — but folks, it’s 2020. Can’t we have a generation raised that eschews privilege based on race, and just respects each individual, all individuals, with love and merit as our default?

Obviously this is a personal perspective, and thank you for allowing me to indulge. So let me also ask again: Can and should brands make such statements of their own?

Content: Getting Past the Predictable to the Unique

This past week, I was fortunate to listen in on a Direct Marketing Club of New York “midweek recharge” teleconference on COVID-19 and brand loyalty, led by current DMCNY President Ginger Conlon and Deb Gabor, principal and founder of Sol Marketing (Austin, TX). How ironic that our inboxes are filled with “We’re all in this together” type messages from brands, while this past week we’re also very much reminded that, in reality, we really are not all in this together. People of color are disproportionately affected by COVID-19, just as they are with police brutality and a host of other societal aspects.

Gabor was insistent that brands very much act like people — and should. Authenticity must be the measure, however, in what they have to say, she reported. The content of such messages needs to be driven from the core principles of what the brand stands for, rather than from a cookie-cutter response at what competitors may be doing or saying.

With regard to COVID-19, one might think of ways brands could communicate to customers about how they are protected when doing business with the brand. But is this the best, first message?

Perhaps, a more important constituency might come first: how these messages are stronger when they focus on employee well-being and a thankfulness for first-responders and essential workers. I duly appreciate Wal-Mart and Amazon brands for emphasizing these aspects in their current advertising and marketing. Certainly, these brands are not without vulnerability. There’s much attention on such brands regarding living wages and labor participation in the management of their business strategies, even as they hire thousands of workers amid this employment crisis.

Unique Statements Anchored in Core Values and Empathy

We cannot forget about empathy, and how this must be part of any brand social commentary regarding race, gender, sexual identity, or housing and economic status. As Americans, we need to draw a line anywhere where discrimination and hate, ambivalence or indifference, rears its ugly head. Ben & Jerry clearly shows where it stands on Black Lives Matters, and minces no words:

Even in the world of ad tech, we’ve seen some powerful statements, such as this one from San Francisco-based TechSoup, a company which offers software solutions in the philanthropy community, and is putting its resources to work. In an email, CEO Rebecca Masisak and Chief Community Impact Officer Marnie Webb co-wrote:

We need more than the reallocation of resources; we need systems changed. We need to be a part of that, in our organization, in our communities, and in our country.

This is what we are doing right now to address a piece of the crisis in the U.S.:

• Continue to investigate our own privilege so that we can embed racial equity into our work.

• Make the reach of our platforms available for the voices that need to be heard. Right now, at this moment, that means:

• Active listening

• Amplifying the messages of Black-led community organizations, philanthropists, and journalists

• Inviting others who want to make use of our platform to use it to share their messages and engage others in communication

• Raise money to defray the costs and support the optimization of technology for Black-led organizations and community groups.

Brands and Support for Democracy

Among trade associations, cheers, too, for the IAB (Interactive Advertising Bureau) for enabling its employees this week to dedicate paid time off each month to work for social change:

These brands are indeed acting like people — because they are composed of people (investors, owners, customers, employees) who are motivated to share their values in a powerful way. Not every brand may be in a position to speak on racial injustice, or COVID-19, with authenticity. But we — as members of the human race — might best stand for each other. What other choice do good folks, and good brands, have?

 

Data Privacy Policymaking Words of Warning of Europe

Two weeks back, two hearings in Congress were held about a possible forthcoming new federal data privacy law for the United States. Some of the testimony included fascinating insight.

Two weeks back, two hearings in Congress were held about a possible forthcoming new federal data privacy law for the United States. Some of the testimony included fascinating insight.

It’s been nearly nine months since the European Union’s (EU) General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) took effect with its tentacle effects worldwide – and it is helpful to look at what has transcribed, and to avoid making GDPR’s mistakes. That’s what one of the witnesses, Roslyn Layton, visiting scholar, American Enterprise Institute, had to say to the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, Subcommittee on Consumer Protection and Commerce, in her statement titled “How the US Can Leapfrog the EU.”

GDPR’s Early Impacts Are Foreboding

From Dr. Layton’s testimony, I found these excerpts (footnotes removed) to be particularly insightful – and somewhat frightful, though some of it predictable. She examined GDPR’s early deleterious effects which we, in the United States and elsewhere, would be wise to reject:

GDPR Is Not about Privacy  It’s About Data Flows

“A popular misconception about the GDPR is that it protects privacy; it does not. In fact, the word ‘privacy’ does not even appear in the final text of the GDPR, except in a footnote. Rather, the GDPR is about data protection or, more correctly, data governance. Data privacy is about the use of data by people who are allowed to have it. Data protection, on the other hand, refers to technical systems that keep data out of the hands of people who should not have it. By its very name, the GDPR regulates the processing of personal data, not privacy.”

GDPR Has Only Concentrated Big Digital Since Taking Effect

“To analyze a policy like the GDPR, we must set aside the political pronouncements and evaluate its real-world effects. Since the implementation of the GDPR, Google, Facebook and Amazon have increased their market share in the EU.”

GDPR Has Decimated Small- and Mid-Sized Ad Tech

“One study suggests that small- and medium-sized ad tech competitors have lost up to one-third of their market position since the GDPR took effect. The GDPR does not bode well for cutting-edge firms, as scientists describe it as fundamentally incompatible with artificial intelligence and big data. This is indeed a perverse outcome for a regulation that promised to level the playing field.”

GDPR Raises Costs, Prohibitively Acting as a Trade Barrier

“To do business in the EU today, the average firm of 500 employees must spend about $3 million to comply with the GDPR. Thousands of US firms have decided it is not worthwhile and have exited. No longer visible in the EU are the Chicago Tribune and the hundreds of outlets from Tribune Publishing. This is concerning because the EU is the destination of about two-thirds of America’s exports of digital media, goods and services. Indeed, the GDPR can be examined as a trade barrier to keep small American firms out so that small European firms can get a foothold.”

GDPR Denies Valuable Content to European Citizens

“Of course, $3 million, or even $300 million, is nothing for Google, Facebook and Amazon (The Fortune 500 firms have reportedly earmarked $8 billion for GDPR upgrades.), but it would bankrupt many online enterprises in the US. Indeed, less than half of eligible firms are fully compliant with the GDPR; one-fifth say that full compliance is impossible. The direct welfare loss is estimated be about €260 per European citizen.”

What if the US Enacted GDPR Here … Oh, the Costs

“If a similar regulation were enacted in the US, total GDPR compliance costs for US firms alone would reach $150 billion; twice what the US spend on broadband network investment and one-third of annual e-commerce revenue in the US.”

Dr. Layton, in her testimony, also questioned the California Consumer Privacy Act, which may create even more enterprise requirements then GDPR. She suggested more pragmatic paths need to be forged.

A Better Way Privacy by Design

“Ideally, we need a technologically neutral national framework with a consistent application across enterprises. It should support consumers’ expectations to have same protections on all online entities. The law should make distinctions between personally identifiable information which deserves protection, but not require same high standard for public data, de-identified, and anonymized data which do not carry the same risks. Unlike the GDPR, the US policy should not make it more expensive to do business, reduce consumer freedom or inhibit innovation.”

Data ‘Seat Belts and Air Bags’ for Privacy

In a second hearing, before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) CEO Randall Rothenberg provided a spirited statement of data’s role in the U.S. economy and the benefits that continue to accrue. He, too, drew from an another industry’s history which he believes offers a helpful analogy and cooperative blueprint:

IAB CEO Randall Rothenberg | Credit: Photo: Chet Dalzell

Internet’s Profound Communication Power

“The Internet is perhaps the most powerful and empowering mode of communication and commerce ever invented. It is built on the exchange of data between individuals’ browsers and devices, and myriad server computers operated by hundreds of millions of businesses, educational institutions, governments, NGOs, and other individuals around the world.”

Advertising’s Essential Role Online Much of It Data-Driven

Advertising has served an essential role in the growth and sustainability of the digital ecosystem, almost from the moment the first Internet browsers were released to the public in the 1990s. In the decades since, data-driven advertising has powered the growth of e-commerce, the digital news industry, digital entertainment, and a burgeoning consumer-brand revolution by funding innovative tools and services for consumers and businesses to connect, communicate and trade.

The Indispensable Ingredient: Trust

“Central to companies’ data-fueled growth is trust. As in any relationship, from love to commerce, trust underlies the willingness of parties to exchange information with each other; and thus, their ability to create greater value for each other. The equation is simple: The economy depends on the Internet; the Internet runs on data; data requires trust. IAB strongly believes that legislative and regulatory mechanisms can be deployed in ways that will reinforce and enhance trust in the Internet ecosystem.”

Universal Truth: Consumer Data Is Good

“We recommend Congress start with a premise that for most of American history was self-evident, but today seems almost revolutionary: consumer data is a good thing. It is the raw material of such essential activities as epidemiology, journalism, marketing, business development, and every social science you can name.

The Auto Industry Offers Us a Proactive Model

“We believe our goals align with the Congress’ decision to take a proactive position on data privacy, rather than the reactive approach that has been adopted by Europe and some states. We believe we can work together as partners in this effort with you to advance consumer privacy. Our model is the partnership between government and industry that created the modern concept of automotive safety in the 1960s. Yes, the partnership began as a shotgun wedding. Yes, the auto industry resisted at first. But an undeniable consumer right to be safe on the highways met well-researched solutions, which the Congress embedded in well-crafted laws that were supported by the states.

Auto Safety and Digital Wellness

“The result has been millions of lives and billions of dollars saved. We believe the analogy holds well here. Americans have a right to be secure on the information superhighway. Well-researched solutions and well-crafted laws can assure their ‘digital wellness.’ We should be thorough, practical and collaborative. Our goal should be to find the three or five or 10 practices and mechanisms the seat belts and air bags of the Internet era  that companies can implement and consumers can easily adopt that will reinforce privacy, security and trust.”

Notice and Choice Bombardment Or Predictable Rules of the Road

“Together, based on our members’ experience, we can achieve this new paradigm by developing a federal privacy law that, instead of bombarding consumers with notices and choices, comprehensively provides clear, even-handed, consistent and predictable rules of the road that consumers, businesses and law enforcers can rely upon.

One Federal Standard in Harmony

“Without a consistent, preemptive federal privacy standard, the patchwork of state privacy laws will create consumer confusion, present significant challenges for businesses trying to comply with these laws, and ultimately fall short of consumers’ expectations about their digital privacy. We ask the Congress to harmonize privacy protections across the country through preemptive legislation that provides meaningful protections for consumers while allowing digital innovation to continue apace.”

It is worth reading the testimonies of the privacy advocates present at these two hearings, as well. These GDPR fans have many sympathetic voices in the media and Congress, and truly need to be part of any conversation where consensus ought to be built. It is my hope the right federal legislation will result. The early evidence from Europe where advocates won over reason portends the punitive risks of getting it wrong.

How Does Native Advertising Survive in an Age of Transparency?

Native advertising goes by many names including: sponsored content, sponsored posts, paid posts, brand services, custom solutions, branded content and probably dozens of other titles. Regardless of the name, the product is essentially the same.

Native advertising goes by many names including: sponsored content, sponsored posts, paid posts, brand services, custom solutions, branded content and probably dozens of other titles. Regardless of the name, the product is essentially the same.

Native ads are pieces of paid content ranging across articles, videos, infographics or images delivered in the flow of editorial content and consistent with the editorial style and tone of the publication. Typically, they have a teeny, tiny stamp that marks them as advertising or sponsored content — if you know what to look for. However, not everyone does know what to look for and research suggests that most users don’t recognize it as advertising.

The implicit agreement of the Web is that content is largely free and that ad exposures pay for the significant costs to create and deliver all that content to users. This keeps it simple — church and state, advertising and editorial — and maintains a mutually beneficial balance. Native advertising subverts that trade-off for the benefit of publishers/advertisers in much the same way that ad blockers tip the scales for consumers.

In fact, many assert that native advertising arose as a publisher solution to outsmart ad blocker software allowing growing numbers of consumers to remove ads from their online experience.

The rise of native advertising under its multitude of names has been impressive. Higher click and engagement rates compared to other forms of online advertising have driven brands on board with flexible formats across social and mobile platforms, in particular. Business Insider Intelligence predicts that spending on native ads will rise to $21 billion in 2018 from just $4.7 billion in 2013. Almost half of online advertisers have adopted native ads into their plans as of 2016, according to a recent survey.

But the widespread usage of this format is not without its costs. A recent Penn State study found there may be negative perceptions attached to publishers who blur the lines of advertising and editorial. Brands using the tactic apparently get more leeway since they are expected to promote themselves.

Still, publishers chasing much needed revenue have almost universally adopted this highly effective approach, including expected sources like Buzzfeed, Outbrain and Facebook plus other, more traditional and mainstream, publishers like USA Today, The New York Times, Conde Nast, The Atlantic and The Wall Street Journal.Forbes cover with native advertisingForbes actually devoted part of its cover to a native ad for Fidelity in its latest issue, prompting AdAge to proclaim “Another Taboo Broken.”

Smart algorithms drive the money machine that is native advertising even as popular criticisms emerge in voices as unexpected as John Oliver and South Park:

https://youtu.be/IVfslRsNXUc

The reproaches vary but tend to reflect the core concern that users may mistake paid content for unpaid content.

Well, yeah. Native advertising done well will blur the line between content and ads. That is the goal of the format — to keep readers in the stream of their content experience and not disrupt them with a blatant ad. But, if we don’t disclose the commercial intent in a visible and noticeable way, we are using trickery that runs counter to the transparency that users demand in their Web experience today.

How do advertisers capitalize on the opportunities presented by these new innovative ad vehicles without stepping over that thin line? The Federal Trade Commission published specific guidelines late in 2015 to help brands avoid deceptive practices, and the IAB has weighed in as well (opens as a PDF). Guidelines reduce to simply how visible and clear the disclosure needs to be.

Web users demand transparency and punish brands that aren’t truthful at the same time they reward brands that succeed in delivering honest ideas and communications. #Fails abound for hapless brand campaigns that ring false with their audiences.

But, marketers lured by the promise of improved results may minimize or rationalize their deception and probably don’t even consider the broader possible impact on the industry. Like most things, the danger is in the aggregate.

There may be increased backlash coming as more and more consumers come to recognize and resent the frequent sleight of hand integral to many native ad executions. And it won’t just damage the already challenged reputation of the advertising industry, but will also tarnish publishers and brands making it harder for even forthright ad executions to gain acceptance.

For the industry to continue innovating successfully, the public trust must be prioritized with both publishers and advertisers acting responsibly. For native ads, that means a minimum of clear naming and prominent labeling. It’s the law, it’s the right thing to do and it’s smart business.