Why brands need to stop culture-jacking and just get back to good marketing

Idiello-co-founder-Mia Fileman

Idiello co-founder Mia Fileman.

In these turbulent and hyper-woke times, it seems not a day goes by that yet another huge brand isn’t apologising for their latest campaign or social media post.

In light of the world events of 2020, many companies have had to completely scrap their meticulously designed marketing plans, and have instead been forced to be largely reactive.

The approach that seems to be the flavour of the month? Culture-jacking.

It seems brands are jumping on the bandwagon in droves and releasing content or campaigns capitalising on whatever pop culture event is dominating the headlines or flooding social media.

While some brands nail it, culture-jacking is often the lowest form of advertising, and we’ve seen over the years just how wrong it can go.

Pepsi Max’s Kendall Jenner ad regularly tops worst-ads-of-all-time lists. While the company says it was attempting to project a message of unity, peace and understanding, all everyone could see was a trivialisation of the Black Lives Matter movement.

And Gilette won’t be shaking off the disaster that was the A Best A Man Can Be campaign anytime soon, with many arguing it was promoting ideals of toxic masculinity.

When it comes to culture-jacking, it may be very enticing to ride the wave, but unless you’ve market-tested it, you’re heading for a wipeout. Even in the past two weeks alone, we’ve seen big brands such as Domino’s and Business Chicks quickly backpedalling after jumping on the ‘Karen’ bandwagon.

In response to that ‘Karen’ in Bunnings, Domino’s wanted to ride the viral train and quickly mobilised a campaign to offer all socially responsible, mask-wearing women named Karen a free pizza. The backlash was swift with comments saying that free pizza was simply ‘rewarding privilege’. Domino’s NZ promptly issued an apology and dropped the promotion, while Domino’s Australia has remained mum on the issue.

And similarly, Business Chicks wanted to shine a light on all the amazing Karens and asked their audience to tag and use the hashtag #amazingkaren. One day later they issued this apology:

“We stuffed up. We wanted our ‘Karen’ post to be something light-hearted and fun, but now we know it is not. We failed to understand that ‘Karen’ is used to describe white women who are racist, particularly in the US. And while we continue to celebrate the women simply named Karen in our community, we failed to acknowledge that there are so many other stereotypes that urgently need to be called out. We’re sorry. We’re learning and thank you to the women that have pulled us up, please keep holding us accountable.”

Culture-jacking is not only lazy, it can be a dangerous tactic because you’re forced to act in the split second before that particular pop-culture ship has sailed. That means, generally speaking, that you’re putting out material before you’ve even had time to test the idea, which is just bad marketing.

And it’s not only brands who capitalise on culture-jacking who are making the mistakes.

With marketers forced to fly by the seat of their pants this year, other big companies also seem like they’re making quick — and uninformed — decisions.

It only took a few minutes after Audi posted their latest campaign image on social media that the criticism started flowing in thick and fast. The campaign showed a young girl, about the age of four or five, casually leaning on the front of one of their high-performance cars, eating a banana.

Critics called the child’s pose and use of the banana “provocative”, while her positioning in front of the car where a driver would not be able to see her was labelled life-threatening. Audi apologised on Twitter and said they were looking into, “how this campaign has been created and if control mechanisms failed in this case”.

So how does even a huge, premium brand like Audi get it so wrong?

It all comes down to brands not taking the time to take the pulse of the public.

There are always going to be the critics and naysayers, but checking in with how people are thinking and feeling will quickly highlight any major red flags. And while appropriation and blatant racism is one thing, not understanding your customers is entirely another.

The way brands have traditionally gone about validating their campaign ideas is by intimately getting to know their target audience, right down to the psychographic and belief level, through market-testing and customer segmentation analysis.

While there is still always room for the market to respond unfavourably after the testing phase, the risk is substantially minimised.

While the coronavirus pandemic has certainly shaken things up for marketers in 2020, doing away with these practices is perilous.

Instead of trying to reinvent the wheel, brands need to take things back to the basics. Do your research, understand your customer, and make informed decisions based on that data.

Good old-fashion market research never goes out of style, and there are many time-sensitive and cost-effective ways to tap into audience sentiment before going to market with unvalidated ideas.

And given just how long people are spending online or in front of screens while they’re forced to isolate, market testing your audience has really never been easier.

Fan pages and social media communities can be tapped into for an easy sense-check before going to the wider market, and you can get Facebook bots to deliver the research for you, by sending out surveys to your audience to capture recent attitudes.

For an even more conservative approach, brands can just float a topic before even sharing a campaign idea.

During my time as senior brand manager of Maybelline NY at L’Oreal, we would send out product samples to customers to gauge their early response. Our external research agencies provided us with qualified lists of customers and we would reach out to them when we suspected the global marketing direction wouldn’t translate locally. That way we were able to test out taglines and key messages with local audiences as a sense check.

Engaging employees outside of the marketing team can be another great way to test the waters. Sales teams, customer service reps and merchandisers often come face-to-face with real customers in the field, and chat with them in their natural environment.

So, before wildly hitching their cart to yet another bandwagon, marketers really need to just take a breath and do some market-testing before pressing the big ‘go’ button.

It’s basic marketing, not rocket science, and it works, pandemic or not.

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