Your Brand Caught in a Pop-Culture Crisis? You Shoulder Some Blame

It's Not Enough to Create 'Awareness' -- Look at the Big Picture

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Tyler, the Creator. Rick Ross. Lil Wayne.

Brands like Mountain Dew and Reebok have turned on a dime on the recording artists they've struck deals with and dropped talent in light of a small group of critics making a lot of noise. I don't want to defend any of the content that was deemed offensive. But it's important to examine how that content got attached to a brand and subsequently made its way into the world.

In other words, marketers must take a step back and examine their own culpability in these crises.

Brand managers and the agencies that are making the recommendations for these types of deals are too often looking to create "awareness" only -- and not thinking of the larger strategic picture.

Using rappers and rock stars for awareness campaigns is certainly nothing new, but if marketers were thinking strategically, they'd approach these relationships as partnering with another brand, not an individual.

If the artist-as-brand approach is based on high-level strategic principles, candidates will be vetted through a system that evaluates the values shared by both brands. If there's no larger opportunity or affinity between a marketer and an artist-brand beyond generating product awareness, then it is likely not a relationship worth pursuing.

Using artists only to create awareness will come back to haunt the brands.

Brands need to remember that they're not buying an artist. They are acquiring the participation of a branded personality who has created his or her brand by being consistent with fans. This is a bond.

When consumer brands want to take advantage of the artist-fan bond to sell products, goods and services, they must understand that bond and the inherent risk in that decision.

Fan fervor
Recording artists are not beholden to corporations, but they are beholden to the millions of fans these consumer brands seek to capitalize upon. Tyler and Rick Ross and Lil Wayne aren't creating content that is inconsistent with the brands that they have been for years. Their fans know the sort of content -- whether it be racy videos or offensive lyrics -- that made the brands and it is their fervor and excitement that creates the equity for the artists that marketers want to borrow. A marketing executive in a glass-walled office might not be aware of the entire Rick Ross catalog or Tyler, the Creator's video library, but a Google search would turn up enough material to inform him of the artist's risk level.

It hardly seems fair, then, that as soon as a brand deal comes under scrutiny, the artist is pilloried in the press while the people who made the deal happen hide in the shadow of the big shiny logo and move on with their lives.

Someone approved the artist recommendation. Someone negotiated the contract and secured the funding from the marketer and shepherded the deal through the business-affairs division.

And responsibility should be assumed by those people as well.

As someone who has negotiated deals between musicians and brands, I believe that success can come from taking the following actions:

  1. Spend more time with due diligence and background research. Put all the lyrics and content on the table and review them.
  2. Develop a stronger strategic rationale for these partnerships. Answer this question: "Why is this relationship being entered into?"
  3. Avoid being selectively risk-averse.
  4. Recognize that the artist is a brand and a human being—that things are going to happen.
  5. Don't drop the artist at the first hint of a scandal. You own the relationship and are culpable, too. Find out how to make the moment something valuable for both parties.

The answer will not be to find more sanitized artists or to stop doing these types of deals, which can be very valuable to marketers. And the truth is, there has never been a scandal with an artist that has brought down a major consumer corporation. On the other hand, when you unceremoniously abandon an artist because of a scandal, you might want to consider the sentiments of the consumers you were targeting when you partnered with him. That type of action has impact on brand health, too.

It is, however, incumbent upon us as marketers to stop swooning so much over Facebook likes, Twitter followers and YouTube views that we forget about the bigger picture -- but then run for cover at the first sign of trouble. We need to use our business acumen, experience and common sense to avoid being in situations that could be embarrassing in the first place.

Steve Stoute is the founder of Translation Advertising.
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