Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Mea Culpa Marketing: Does It Work?

Is “Going Viral” Worth It if It Kills the Host?

As consumers, we’re increasingly being assaulted with marketing campaigns that irritate us, shock us and enrage us. The new formula goes something like this:

• Marketer creates and airs a television campaign that blatantly insults or stereotypes a segment of the population, depicts anti-social behavior, or is just in plain bad taste. (Yes, the latter is still possible to achieve if one works hard enough, even with today’s low bar.)

• Consumers recoil in horror. They flock to social media, posting thousands of messages about the campaign.

• Marketer pretends to be stunned by the market response, and suggests that it never dreamed its campaign would offend so many people.

• Marketer issues apology. It enlists the Professionally Offended – for example, advocacy groups or academic experts– to assist in its rehabilitation. It makes some sort of charitable donation to the offended group(s). Mainstream and social media duly report on the mea culpa, creating another wave of free news coverage for the marketer.

Recent high-profile examples of mea culpa marketing include:

Groupon: This marketer used the plight of the Tibetan people as the introduction for discounted coupons for Himalayan restaurants, chirped with a smug face by actor Timothy Hutton.

HomeAway: This marketer apparently thought it hilarious to launch an infant (played by a doll and labeled “test baby”) into a wall or through it. And even more hilarious to give people a Web-site game where they could place someone’s face on a baby before launching it.

Kraft: This marketer used a scolding, black-clad Greek grandmother to sell Greek yogurt to young women, raising hackles in the Greek-American community.

Mea culpa marketing campaigns tend to proliferate at Super Bowl time. Businesses that have invested millions in TV production and time – including startups – clearly want to get the most out of their investments. Super Bowl advertising has become a mini-industry, attracting lots of press coverage by the mainstream media and consumer engagement on social media. It’s apparently no longer good enough to aim to be the best commercial. Or even the worst commercial, securing your brand’s place in infamy. Marketers today have to really think creatively about how to break through the clutter.

As a consumer, I resent being so blatantly manipulated by marketers. And I respond accordingly, by shunning the marketer and not buying its products.*

As a marketer, I am curiously waiting to see the net effect of these campaigns. The cynic in me believes that many of these offensive campaigns were completely intentional. How could a professional marketer think that launching a baby (albeit fake) into a wall would possibly be perceived as okay by most people? Or that it is funny to exploit the plight of politically oppressed people to sell restaurant meals to overfed Americans?

As a marketer in the pre-Internet days, I was involved in my share of bad-news marketing situations. Our policy was to act quickly and decisively to acknowledge the situation, take corrective action, and then communicate the action thoroughly and clearly. The goal was to prevent press coverage of the story from extending beyond one or two days maximum.

Clearly times have changed, mostly because of the Internet. Groupon appeared to stumble around for days in responding to its situation, extending the story for nearly a week after the Super Bowl broadcast.

Time will tell whether these mea culpa marketing campaigns were profitable for the marketers.

In the meantime, here are some observations.

There is no such thing as an inside joke any more: The Internet brings anyone and everyone to your campaigns, not just the people you are targeting. This means people of different cultures who speak different languages and so on. Someone will be confused, or offended, or both. Your inside joke may be their first – and only – exposure to your brand.

The Offended is big business: There are private advocacy groups that represent segments of the population (for example, Greek-Americans) or problems (child abuse, brain injuries, political oppression in Tibet). There are also published authors, academics, government organizations and NGOs. All can be counted on to respond to a mea culpa campaign, because their missions, businesses and livelihoods depend on it. Further, today social media gives virtually anyone who is offended a platform for expressing himself – and a ready platform for such forms of expression as organizing a worldwide boycott of your product, inciting the vandalizing of your premises, or harassing your executives.

Most consumers have short memories: Particularly given information overload, consumers over time may remember your brand or company name, but not why they remember it. And, once they have vented their initial outrage online, many consumers will move on to the next thing and may continue to buy your product. The lure of discounts for restaurant meals may win out over moral outrage – particularly for people feeding families in today’s economy. Or not.

The Internet has a long memory: Conversely, a quick search on Google or Bing will instantly remind a curious consumer why they heard of you. Far into the future.

So, before considering a mea culpa marketing strategy, ask yourself: “Do I feel lucky?” All the market research in the world may not help.

According to Nielsen, Groupon’s Super Bowl ads boosted traffic to the company ‘s Web site by only 3%. By comparison, HomeAway’s post-Super Bowl traffic was up 27%.

* Obviously, I am contributing to the wave of press coverage of bad behavior.

1 comment:

  1. Many things have changed in our media world over the past ten years, but one thing has not: "There is no accounting for taste." There are thousands more media experts out there now, who provide advice without the burden of much life, or media, experience. I think this contributes significantly to the proliferation of what I call "bad idea" marketing.