The Real Creative Challenge: Sugar, Batteries and Horsemeat

High-Profile Companies in the Throes of Image Crises: How Truthful Are They Willing to Be?

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Now that the distraction of the Super Bowl is over and we're already forgetting which brands paid handsomely for what entertaining ads, CMOs are left facing the real creative challenge: how to explain reality to your customers.

Reality is that vital component of branding that we used to avoid back in the glory days of mass media. Marketers could literally buy brand attributes through a combination of agency creative and media spend. Disconnects between promises and performance were handled individually and quietly. Brands were things that smart communicators could conceive and build in casual disregard for the influences of reality.

Today, those influences are unavoidable. Not only can consumers share their opinions with one another, but their sources of information have expanded far beyond the purview of marketing's control. Drivers are aware of oil spills when they buy gas. Grocery shoppers are interested in how produce is grown. Clothing and consumer-electronics buyers read online stories about factory labor practices. The reality of how companies operate has an evolving, real-time impact on purchase decisions.

Addressing this reality is an inescapable requirement for brands, yet doing so challenges the very way we deliver branding, doesn't it? Coming up with a creative ad or social campaign that is inwardly true to your brand is easy by comparison. Incorporating external reality is really tough, and I think creative energies should be refocused on it.

The dilemmas facing a few high-profile companies illustrate the challenges and opportunities of this reality.

Coca-Cola. I wrote a few weeks ago about Coke's attempts to address its role in America's obesity crisis through ads targeted at policymakers and consumers. The brand came close to saying to people that they shouldn't drink mass quantities of the stuff, which I praised, but it didn't do so as directly as I'd hoped. Brian Steinberg who writes for this magazine felt otherwise, asking why Coke should do it at all. This is a really interesting debate. Will Coke's non-obese consumers value and reward the brand for its furtive attempts at honesty, or will it make no difference (or, worse, hurt it)? The reality of the issue will not go away in any case. Coke appears to be trying to figure out what to do about it. I wonder what other creative approaches we might see.

Boeing. This great brand name is in the throes of a horrible reputation crisis over the batteries in its new 787 airplanes, which has brought into question the entire program. The reality of how it produces its product -- which is fundamentally different than past airplane programs -- begs questions among a variety of stakeholders, even as its primary airline customers seem unfazed by it. So far, the company has downplayed the issue and repeatedly tried to take it off the table. Of course, it will never go away, and its marketers are not empowered to fix it. My bet is that we'll eventually see some glossy TV ad about the greatness of its new plane. Will it be credible? I wonder what else it could do or say instead.

Burger King. A huge scandal involving horsemeat in its UK hamburgers has the brand reeling there, since its communicators initially chose to pooh-pooh the problem. Worse, the events raise questions about the integrity of its supply chain here and in Asia. The company has yet to take any concerted action in the United States, so the jury is still out. But I wonder if it will come up with a substantive answer and then find a creative way to communicate it. Nobody cares about supply chains when they're hungry. It's a big challenge to get the necessary points across in a useful way.

The real creative challenge for brands isn't simply responding to problems, of course. It's far more a proactive approach to branding. Communicating the reality of the business helps lower the likelihood that consumer expectations will be missed or shocked. Could Coke's conversation about sugar make its future marketing about its wholesomeness more believable? If Boeing could acknowledge the risks of its production, would it better position its future airplane claims? Does Burger King need to proactively talk about how it protects its supply chain so a someday product scare seems more a surprise than a result of its shortcomings?

Brands that address the reality of their businesses attract, support, and sustain happier, better informed and more loyal customer relationships. I know talking about fatness, manufacturing and supply chains isn't as sexy as a fart joke or scantily-clad model, but these are real creative challenges that deserve real attention. And, unlike the Super Bowl, they're an influence on branding all year long.

JONATHAN SALEM BASKIN is the author of "A Thousand Words: Why We Must Fight The Tyranny of Brief, Vague & Incomplete," and the president of Baskin Associates, a marketing consultancy. You can follow him on Twitter: @jonathansalem.
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