Revolutionary Measures

Elon Musk and brand safety – a cautionary tale

Consumers increasingly want to engage with genuine brands with a personality. And in many cases this goes back to the founder and CEO. Think of Apple and Steve Jobs, Microsoft and Bill Gates, Burt’s Bees and Burt. Or, as I heard yesterday on Radio 4, Gwyneth Paltrow and Goop.

battle black blur board game

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In a world where consumers are bombarded with slogans from faceless corporations, having a figurehead that they can relate to should be an excellent shortcut to drive success. And, in many ways it often is. However, one of the key factors that drives people to found and grow businesses is self-belief that whatever they do is right, and that they need to battle the world to maintain their success. Add in that the more success they have, the fewer people there are around them who are willing to tell them when they are wrong and you can see a recipe for potential reputational disasters.

Elon Musk is a classic case in point. He’s built Tesla into one of the most recognised car brands on the planet, from scratch, and helped accelerate the spread of electric vehicles. Earlier in the year the company had a stock valuation of $50 billion – larger than Ford, despite its much smaller size (and profitability).

Of course, the key phrase is “had a stock valuation of $50 billion”. Musk announced in a tweet that he had the funding in place to take the company private at $420 per share. When it turned out he didn’t he was sued by both investors and regulators. A further tweet after he was fined for this saw the stock fall further, knocking $10 billion off its value. And don’t forget this is the man that called a British diver involved in the Thai cave rescue a ‘pedo’ and was recorded smoking pot on a podcast.

So how can organisations combine the creativity, drive and charisma of a founder with brand safety? There are four ways to achieve this:

1          Trust the CEO
You could, of course, just let the CEO do what they like, Richard Branson style, but that’s assuming that they understand that there are limits to their behaviour. In the case of true loose cannons (like Musk), this isn’t going to work. In the case of public companies it is also going to make the share price gyrate on a daily basis.

2          Focus on the product
A longer term strategy is to shift the focus from the founder to the product. So while the CEO might be introducing what the company makes, they are talking about what goes into it and what makes the company special, beyond their own personality. Bring in outsiders such as celebrities to subtly shift away from a single founder – a good example is the Virgin Media ads featuring Usain Bolt alongside Branson.

3          Build a team
No one person can run a multi-million pound company successfully. Leaders need help, so build a team and make sure that they are increasingly seen in the media. They are never going to have the same appeal as the founder – for example compare Tim Cook with Steve Jobs at Apple. But creating a wider team will deflect some of the attention over time and prepare for the point when the founder is no longer around.

4          Have people who can say no
Probably the hardest thing for an underling to do is to disagree with their boss, particularly if they have built the company from the ground up. Not many employees would embrace such an almost certain career-limiting move. That means telling founders that they are on the wrong track has to come from boards, independent mentors and from creating a culture where messengers are not shot, but encouraged. This is another long-term process, but one that needs to be thought of early in the process.

Balancing the marketing value of a charismatic figurehead with their wayward side is never easy – just ask Ryanair – but if brands want to stay around for the long-term they need to be ready to outlive their founder and put in place a framework and culture that turns ‘me’ into ‘we’ without losing the brand essence and magic they bring.

 

 

October 10, 2018 Posted by | Creative, Marketing, Startup | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Brand safety in the age of Trump

Marketers are all aware of the impact of social media on brand reputation. Issues can quickly go viral as consumers share complaints on Facebook and Twitter – and with the press continually monitoring for social stories, before you know it you are on the BBC News or the front page of a newspaper website.

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However, what has changed in the last twelve months or so has been the impact of celebrities, including Donald Trump, on brand safety. A tweet from the US President complaining about a company can damage reputation, and even survival. Take the case of Chinese telecoms equipment maker ZTE. Convicted of breaching US sanctions on Iran and North Korea, the company first looked doomed to go out of business when it was banned from buying US components, and was then resurrected through a supportive tweet from Trump.

All a bit Thameslink
It isn’t just Trump – a tweet from author Eric Van Lustbader about food poisoning at a branch of US restaurant chain Chipotle (already reeling from an e.coli outbreak), caused its stock to fall. And in the UK, rail company Thameslink was threatened with legal action from Poundland for comparing its poor service to ‘Poundland cooking chocolate’. The retailer added that it if it ever fell short on customer service, they’d describe themselves as ‘a bit Thameslink’.

What the Poundland experience shows is that brands are now fighting back against what they see as unfair attacks. Nowhere was this more visible than in the Roseanne Barr case, where the TV star blamed sleeping pill Ambien for her racist tweets. Cue its maker Sanofi to respond (brilliantly) “While all pharmaceutical treatments have side effects, racism is not a known side effect of any Sanofi medication.”

Whereas in the past they may have ignored social media mentions or only responded weeks later, brands are now wising up to the protecting their online reputation. However, I think they need to balance speed with the following three factors:

1.Be polite and engaging
It would have been very easy for multibillion dollar drug company Sanofi to respond to Roseanne with a dry legal statement or to launch an attack of its own. Instead, it balanced politeness with cutting wit, simultaneously undermining her point and demonstrating its good corporate citizenship.

2.Don’t get personal
When a celebrity, particularly one with millions of followers, tweets about you it is easy for things to descend into a personal slanging match that actually further damages your brand. Try and take the moral high ground, state the facts and think before you tweet. After all, there are likely to be brand advocates who will defend you aggressively, letting you focus on your key messages.

3.Take a joke
Brand safety isn’t about jumping on every negative, throwaway mention of your company and overreacting/threatening legal action. Decide what is important, what can be handled by a simple denial, and where it makes more sense for your brand to play along and show that you have a sense of humour.

The past few weeks have shown that marketers are now taking positive steps to protect brand reputation online – they clearly have the monitoring systems in place to intervene early, but they need to make sure they don’t become too corporate if they are to actually enhance their reputations rather than adding to online damage through ill-thought out responses.

June 6, 2018 Posted by | Creative, Marketing, PR, Social Media | , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment