What David Bowie Taught Us as a Brand
What McDonalds, Coca-Cola, and Target Reveal about the Minefield of Good Intentions
February 27, 2015
As the 2015 Super Bowl ads made readily apparent, there is a growing number of brands that are shifting the focus of their marketing away from themselves and on to the positive contribution they are making in the world. This is good news in terms of the positive impact these brands can have on individual lives, communities and the planet, but at the same time it places an even greater burden on brands to get the tone of their messaging just right. That’s critical because today’s consumer, whether they be Boomers, Millennials or Gen Z, are more media savvy, connected, and more distrustful than ever. This means purposeful storytelling, while more necessary than ever, is also treacherous ground. Here are three examples from the last month that reveal the spectrum of responses that brands can encounter.
1. McDonald’s: The re-launch of the “I’m Loving It” campaign was one of the most visible campaigns of the Super Bowl and the weeks that followed. Customers were given the chance to pay for their purchases by sharing the love in the form of a dance, hugging someone, or simply calling up their mom to say, “I love you.” While this campaign made for some surprising television commercials, it played out with difficulty in the marketplace as customers came to terms with the experience of such forced intimacy. Whether it meant hugging an employee, a stranger, or simply showing a loving emotion at a time that didn’t feel appropriate, the campaign left many commentators and customers feeling awkward about this well-intended brand experience. If there is a lesson to be learned from this campaign, it is that a brand must seek to inspire emotions that come instinctively and naturally, and avoid creating situations that would obviously leave customers feeling awkward, manipulated, or outright uncomfortable.
2. Coca-Cola: The #Make it Happy campaign was well received at the Super Bowl and in the press as it took on the cultural issue of online hate by transforming negative comments into positive and uplifting images. Unbeknownst to Coca-Cola, however, their good intentions were hijacked when Gawker shared excerpts from Adolf Hitler’s, ‘Mein Kampf’ that were then repurposed through the “Make It Happy” algorithm and shared by the brand. Coca-Cola was quick to respond and the campaign was suspended. As a Coca-Cola spokesperson stated, “the #MakeItHappy message is simple, the Internet is what we make of it and we tried to inspire people to make it a happy place. It’s unfortunate that Gawker had turned the campaign into something it isn’t.” In fact, they concluded that Gawker’s attempts to spread hate through #MakeItHappy was a perfect example of the pervasive online negativity Coca-Cola was trying to address with the campaign. The lesson here is that human vigilance is constantly required even when promoting a well-intentioned campaign as there is always a cynical and counterproductive audience waiting in the wings.
3. Target: In contrast to the two Super Bowl campaigns discussed above, Target enjoyed dramatic and unexpected social media exposure due to a simple act of kindness by an employee. When a young teenage boy stopped by a Target in search of a clip-on tie, a Target team member took the time to help the nervous teen put on his new tie and showed him how to do a proper handshake and tackle a few tough interview questions. The moment was caught in a photograph and shared online and quickly became a viral sensation with over 1,300 comments, 5,000 shares and over 50,000 likes. This simple act and the exposure it generated played perfectly into their tagline, “Expect More, Pay Less, Each and Everyday at Target.” If there is a lesson to be gained from this experience, it’s that authentic simple acts of genuine kindness resonate as loudly, if not more loudly, than any multi-million dollar campaign.
Taken together these three examples provide signposts as to how brands should strike that delicate balance between being media savvy and sharing their good intentions. First, a brand must always relate to customers in simple human terms that feel natural. Second, brands must always be on the lookout for those trying to hijack well-intentioned messaging. Third, nothing resounds more loudly in among today’s media-savvy audience than an authentic act of human kindness. Stay within those guardrails and most brands can navigate the minefield of good intentions with confidence knowing that the majority of people bring their best selves to the web and celebrate brands seeking to make a positive difference.