3 Ways Marketing Leaders Can Protect Their Brand in the Era of Fake News

January 29, 2020
Contributor: Gloria Omale

Marketing leaders should have a solid grasp of brand values and a crisis management plan before taking a stand on societal or political issues.

Today’s customers expect (and often demand) that brands take a stand on political and social issues — particularly those related to a brand’s purpose, like environmentalism or fostering creativity or exploration. When done well, supporting a certain cause can bond brands to like-minded consumers who are more likely to buy from and remain loyal to the company. But if done incorrectly, it may alienate the brand from others and cause an uproar on social media. 

In 2018, McDonald’s flipped its iconic M to be a W to recognize International Women’s Day, but consumers said the gesture rang hollow due to a lack of action. In 2019, McDonald’s paired the upturned M with an initiative meant to support and advance women in the organization, which was more widely praised.

“Marketing leaders face increasing risks on social media, particularly when their brands take a stand on societal or political issues,” says Jay Wilson, VP Analyst, Gartner. “Having a game plan in place before taking a public position is critical. Even for brands that typically remain neutral, marketing leaders must prepare for the inevitable day when their brand winds up in the center of the ‘fake news’ maelstrom.”

In the wake of the Parkland, FL, shootings, Delta Air Lines decided to cut ties to the NRA after advocacy groups uncovered a discount the airline was offering to members of the gun advocacy group. 

Airline marketing leaders might strategize around issues like climate change (because of the carbon footprint of aircraft) or animal rights (because of pet transport) but might not be as likely to think about gun control as an issue that impacts the brand. However, in the era of fake news, consumers often pull brands into unexpected contentious issues.  

For marketers, a combination of factors create a risky playing field. These include audience polarization; declining trust in business, media and institutions; unprecedented attacks on brands by governments and elected officials; and emerging Deepfake video technology. 

To successfully navigate this era, Gartner recommends that marketing leaders:

1. Evaluate the benefits of purpose-driven initiatives

From raising awareness to solidifying customer loyalty, purpose can be a critical differentiator for brands. Nearly 80% of Americans say they are more loyal to purpose-driven brands. Map your organization’s existing or planned purpose-driven initiatives to how they impact your branding and competitive differentiation, and where they support customer experience.

Frequently, these initiatives come to life in a brand’s social media presence. This is where these programs can provide a continuous stream of content to engage customers and prospects. Think about how purpose-driven initiatives can support areas such as employee advocacy programs, influencer marketing, social advertising and corporate social responsibility initiatives.

2. Pressure-test new risks

Most brands lack the strategic approach for participating in polarized sociopolitical conversation. Before taking a public stand on political or societal issues, brands must ensure their position is true to their brand purpose and target audience. Brands that stay out of the fray may get dragged in unwillingly, and should be prepared to respond.

3. Ensure process and technology are in place

Prevent crises where possible by putting process and technologies in place to prepare, monitor and defend when the need arises. Preparation may include brainstorming around potential weak links in an organization or supply chain, running fire drills for potential crisis scenarios and getting buy-in from leadership across the organization.

Couple the preparation with current social monitoring processes and capabilities, which may need to be enhanced to include traditional media sources, image analytics and monitoring of fake accounts pretending to be associated with your brand. Finally, come up with a plan for brand defense. It may include employees empowered through employee advocacy programs, influencers with shared values and traditional media contacts.

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