Marketing in the #FakeNews Era is Both Art and Science

By Rob Duboff

As Peter Horst points out in his new book, Marketing in the #FakeNewsEra (and we both explored in a Harvard Business Review article), brand development and maintenance is 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.

These factors are more prominent than ever in 2019 – when a Presidential 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 consumers coming of age this century (think Millennials and/or Gen Z).

There is also no doubt that all 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.

As we talk with clients, attend conferences, or just observe, it is amazing to us how many brands remain unprepared.  For years, we’ve preached about the value of scenario planning for marketers:  the need, at a minimum, to have alternative strategic plans (and short-term tactics) ready for a suddenly-robust economy or a rapidly falling one, in addition to the plan the brand is currently operating under, which usually presumes business as usual.  Having a more robust scenario planning process (with likely alternative futures that are fully fleshed out) is even better.

In relatively stable times (as have existed in the U.S. for the past 6 years since we recovered from 2008-09), this has not been a 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.  In stable times, we don’t see political instability threatening brands, as we do now.  These threats can be significantly mitigated by building a flexible “Plan B”.

Now, in the #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.

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.

Connect with Rob Duboff to learn more about how to address marketing challenges in today’s era of heightened tribalism.