In Digital Age, Brands Need a Reputation Reality Check

How Coca-Cola, Boeing and Burger King Are Weathering PR Crisis Storms

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Now that the distraction of the Super Bowl is over, CMOs are left facing the real creative challenge: how to explain reality to their customers.

Reality is that vital component of branding we used to avoid back in the glory days of mass media, when communicators could conceive and build brands in casual disregard of reality.

Today, those influences are unavoidable. Consumers can share opinions and their sources of information have expanded beyond marketing's control. Drivers are aware of oil spills when they buy gas. Grocery shoppers are interested in how produce is grown. Clothing buyers read stories about factory labor practices. The reality of how companies operate has an evolving, real-time impact on purchase decisions.

Incorporating external reality is really tough, and creative energy should be refocused on it. The dilemmas facing a few high-profile companies illustrate the challenges.

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. 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)? Coke appears to be trying to figure out what to do about it.

This great brand is in the throes of a reputation crisis over the batteries in its new 787 planes, 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 if its primary airline customers seem unfazed. So far, the company has downplayed the issue and tried to take it off the table. But it will never go away, and its marketers aren't 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?

Burger King
A huge scandal in the U.K. involving horsemeat in its burgers has the brand reeling there, since its communicators initially chose to pooh-pooh the problem. Worse, the events raise questions about its supply-chain integrity. The company has yet to take concerted action in the U.S., so the jury's still out. But I wonder if it will come up with a substantive answer and a creative way to communicate it. Nobody cares about supply chains when he's hungry.

The real creative challenge for brands isn't simply responding to problems, but adopting a more proactive approach. 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 claims? Does Burger King need to proactively talk about how it protects its supply chain?

These are creative challenges that deserve real attention. And, unlike the Super Bowl, they're an influence on branding all year long.

JONATHAN SALEM BASKIN is president of Baskin Associates, a marketing-decisions consultancy, and co-author of "Tell The Truth." You can follow him on Twitter: @jonathansalem.

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