Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

Marketing from a glass house

Marketers don't control the narrative anymore; every brand is hours away from a potential reputation crisis

Anamika Sirohi
Published: Apr 21, 2016 06:25:34 AM IST
Updated: Apr 21, 2016 04:34:30 PM IST
Marketing from a glass house
Image: {Shutterstock}

Last week, a post showcasing the skills of a bridal make–up artist turned up on my Facebook wall. Her “before” and “after” photos showed a pretty young girl next door transformed into a stunning bride. Wading through the comments, I could see that the dramatic change was loved by women and the artist was much in demand. Then I saw the solitary comment from a guy. This would lead the groom to develop trust issues, he predicted. The ladies jumped in defending the artist. Broadly, the argument went that if the groom believed the bride had metallic green eyelids, he would have issues other than trust.

That make-up artist is every marketer who’s ever lived. We’ve dressed up our offering to  promise more beauty, health, taste, success and what-have–you than we were confident of delivering. In most cases, it’s accepted by consumers as part of the game. But how much is too much? At what point does it leave them feeling unhappy and cheated?

That question has acquired a sense of urgency ever since the world went digital. Because that unhappy consumer will now go online and make sure the world knows what’s wrong.

We marketers are scrambling to adjust to this new reality. We’re used to telling brand stories through carefully crafted, slick messages. But if a brand is the sum total of the many stories the consumer hears, today we control only a few of them. Online product ratings, comments on Twitter and Facebook, YouTube, unboxing videos and blogs make sure the various truths are out there. And that’s why transparency will soon be the new marketing.  

This reality can hit home unexpectedly, as discovered by the brands sponsoring the UN climate summit in Paris last year. Air France, Volkswagen and other brands were called out  for trying to position themselves as part of the solution when their practices were not perceived as being environment friendly. The activation by Brandalism received global coverage, drowning out the official brand story.      

Look at the products you sell today. Do those delicious candies have potentially risky additives? Does your supply chain use slave labour? Is the packaging you use completely safe? Is the palm oil used in that ice cream causing the destruction of a rainforest? Should any of this matter today to a marketer when there are performance targets to be delivered?

Yes, it should. Because, increasingly, there’s nowhere left to hide. Marketers don’t control the narrative anymore. The truth is that every brand and organisation today is hours away from a potential reputation crisis, if not months away from slow consumer disdain.

This should not scare us though. Transparency does not mean sharing only the good news. Acknowledging that negatives exist and taking care of them is a large part of it.

On communication, there’s the example of Flipkart which apologised to consumers in 2014 with a clear explanation of what went wrong with the Big Billion Day sale. The candid and humble conversation calmed frayed nerves. It was very different from the stoic silence corporates maintain when things go wrong.

Possibly the best example of having a transparent supply chain is the outdoor clothing and gear brand Patagonia.

For them, transparency goes beyond marketing – it is central to business. The Footprint Chronicles  let a consumer discover where their garment was made and its impact on the environment. Again, look at how they are fine sharing both good news and bad. Chipotle, their current supply chain issues notwithstanding, did start well and acquired a reputation for transparency by voluntarily disclosing GMO ingredients on labels.

Communicating transparently can take the form of everything from clear labelling to mentioning hidden charges by financial institutions. But here’s the thing - you can't be selective. Chipotle, tripped in handling the recent crisis. They first seemed reluctant to admit an issue. Also, in a move to appear transparent, they announced that their national employee meeting would be telecast live on Twitter. That telecast lasted just about a minute-and-a-half, leaving everyone guessing what was up.

Closer home, the TATA group of companies has been seen to model transparent corporate behaviour. While examples are plenty, their launch of the jewellery brand Tanishq stands out. They entered a tough category where family jewellers and heritage were trusted. Their Gold Karat Meter and clear explanation of the charges made middle class India trust them and a brand was born.

Patanjali, while quick to point to the apparently non-transparent behaviour of organised consumer goods, is probably higher on authenticity than on transparency. Whether they will need to move to full disclosure of ingredients and business practices is something only time will tell.

Here’s the tough fact about transparent marketing. Most organisations operate with silos which don’t always talk the same language. The marketing leadership will first need to tear down these internal walls before they are able to align the communication campaigns, consumer care centres, packaging labels, product development and sales and distribution to tell the same story. The same story the consumer hears when he experiences the brand.

Which brands do you think walk the talk? And what would you like your brands to share with you?    

 - Anamika Sirohi is a marketer who loves watching brands and people. Views expressed are her own.