Considering Values-based Marketing Programs? Make Sure your Brand has “Permission”

March 15, 2018

When you run an ad campaign that costs $5 million dollars, you’re looking for a big return on your investment, right?

Unfortunately, as brands look to increase their impact by touching on culturally relevant, and highly sensitive, topics, we are seeing both advertising and marketing campaigns miss the mark. When this happens, they are often described as “tone deaf” and brands are left to ponder how their best intentions created a PR catastrophe.

The Super Bowl – the biggest day of the year in advertising – brings us examples of ads that brought widespread critique. This year, it was Ram’s commercial that used a Dr. Martin Luther King voice-over that was widely panned for using a civil rights icon to sell trucks and not realizing his full message in the original address. The previous year, Audi’s gender pay equity campaign fell flat when it became known that only 22 percent of the company’s U.S. workforce was female, with only 12 percent in the senior management ranks.

Ketchum has studied this concept of “tone deafness” to develop our Reputation by Permission platform. In many cases, audiences simply don’t want to hear from companies on certain topics because they haven’t earned the right in the eyes of the public. In many cases, even well-intentioned ads told through the wrong voice, channel or venue can contradict the intended message. And it’s been proven repeatedly that even a small percentage of the overall consumer audience can have an inordinately large impact on overall perception. In some cases, a single tweet is sufficient to change the general consumer response to an ad and lead to negative media coverage.

So, how do you know if your brand has permission to cover a certain topic? How do we uncover “permission space” where brands can safely operate?

Here are three steps to help brands determine if their advertising campaigns and marketing initiatives will resonate with audiences, and identify potential risk.

Values Alignment:
Ensure that the campaign aligns with the values of your company and your employees. If you are promoting a value externally, make sure your house is in order and you are living that value internally. If your own employees don’t buy it, the general public won’t either.

Stress Test
Campaigns are reviewed by a focus group of experts who are in tune with news, current events and issues and can identify any red flags. This is not standard creative testing – it’s issues-focused testing with a select audience hand-picked to identify weaknesses.

Build a Partnership
Work with a third-party stakeholder and industry expert to review the creative and buy-in on the campaign or provide feedback to improve it. Compounding problems with ads that ignore “permission space” is surprising special interest groups who love nothing more than to capitalize on a news cycle for their own benefit.

The intent of issues-focused testing is not to kill creative. We love purpose-driven campaigns and encourage brands to continue to push for an authentic voice within culturally relevant topics that are shaping our society. But ignoring permissions space not only sets back marketers – it inadvertently sets back the causes they intend to promote.

Blake Rhodes is a vice president in Ketchum’s corporate reputation practice based in San Francisco, specializing in issues and crisis communications. He is widely known for his 16-year tenure with the San Francisco Giants, when he managed one of the most prominent issues in sports – the steroids allegations against Barry Bonds.