Eleventh in a Series on Reputation Management and Risk Communications
By Richard Levick
“I been Ayn Randed, nearly branded
Communist, ‘cause I’m left-handed
That’s the hand I use, well never mind!”
Virtue signaling on the left and an unquenchable outrage machine on the right threaten daily to immolate innocent corporate brands as collateral damage. The irony is that both the left and right on the political spectrum share a collective race to victimhood, each one inspiring the other to louder shouting. Brands, no matter how innocent or animated, are the newest targets simply because they provide a platform for opinionated television anchors and howling mobs. The Queen of Hearts from Alice in Wonderland has become the 21st century version of a mold for Mount Rushmore. “Off with their heads” has replaced epistemology.
We apparently do not stand on the shoulders of the nine generations that built America nor see ourselves as the beneficiaries of the most successful experiment in a democratic form of government in two millennium. Our nationwide road system, schools, potable water, access to capital, military strength, power grid and educational systems to name a few, are, rather than the envy of the world, somehow blemishes to be ignored or exploited (“Government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem.”)
Rather than be grateful, social media has empowered the most ahistorical, most unhappy and most unfulfilled to amplify their anger and make all of us either participants or bystanders to the next outrage.
The mid 1990’s controversies over Joe Camel allegedly encouraging young children to identify and subsequently consume cigarettes or Snap, Crackle and Pop possibly encouraging childhood obesity were at least sensible arguments critics could make about the influence of animated characters on young minds. Today? Logic is the culture war’s first casualty.
Why bother to grow in wisdom, focus on the soul or do good work when we can be instantly categorized by our alleged beliefs simply by the logos we wear, the car we drive or the products in our shopping carts? Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, the Dalai Lama, your clergy, constitutional beliefs or emotional growth? As Johnny Depp said in Donnie Brasco, “Fuggetaboutit.” For critics, politicians and the judgmental class, our consumer decisions have become a new religion to define, anger or dismiss.
Rather than governing, attacking brands has become a surrogate for the GOP on the one hand and for thoughtful change on the other from what used to be known as the political left. On the left you are a perpetrator if someone uses the wrong pronoun and on the right if the person you are speaking with doesn’t watch Fox News.
Consuming hamburgers, getting a vaccine, going to Disney World, wearing Nike sneakers, drinking from Starbucks Red Cups (“A war on Christmas”) or a Keurig K-cup; driving an EV (or not) and using a gas stoves are just some of the latest political targets. Who knew Thomas Paine would be replaced by Vogue? Apparently, we are what we buy.
In the nearly 45 years since the birth of cable news and internet platforms provided endless room for “news,” we always wondered what would fill all that space. And now we know. Nonsensical arguments about the sex appeal, insecurities, fashion and sexual preferences of M&M’s animated characters. Tucker Carlson went on a rampage against the candies that “melt in your mouth, not in your hands.”
While the Tucker Carlson argument is remarkably silly, the lessons from Mars’ superb response is well worth studying. Not taking yourself too seriously, humor and keeping true to your brand has remarkable power.
You are not the target, you are a tool: If the attack is coming from Fox News and GOP inspired outrage machine, you are just a temporary talking point. There will not likely be successful boycotts; your stock shares probably won’t suffer long term distress and your corporate reputation is not likely to suffer substantial if any harm. While the left is a little more successful in its calls for boycotts, across the political spectrum boycotts need to be generated from the grassroots.
When criticism stems from the Hoi Polli – see the political influence of the “Swifties” and the Taylor Swift Ticketmaster fiasco – then you are fair game. If it comes from elites like Tucker Carlson, they have a remarkable megaphone but not a largely activated following.
Use your peacetime wisely: Don’t wait to be the victim. Study how other brands have become targets and how they responded and outline considerations on how you would respond if your brand became an unfortunate target.
Understand and embrace your brand: Mars’ brand is not chocolate, it’s joy. Unlike many other companies, Mars fully understands and embraces its brand position. As a result, when the attacks came, Mars did not respond in kind. It chose a single and short, charming Twitter statement (and did not otherwise engage critics) that adorably put the controversy in context while making most of us laugh. To understand how challenging this is, imagine Elon Musk getting just the right soft touch in responding to social critics.
It’s often not your fight: Tragically, the Grand Old Party has become a victim of being platform-less for more than six years. It has to feed the base something and often that is a brand. Do not go toe-to-toe. The longer you are in the ring, the more likely you will actually become the focus de jure. In the culture wars, corporate brands are just replaceable cartridges on a machine gun ammunition belt of outrage.
Mars understood the perfection of timing: While Mars didn’t start this fight, it calmly looked at outside events and timing and realized it was all happening weeks before the single largest television event of the year, the Superbowl. By announcing that they were replacing the talking chocolate candies with comedian Maya Rudolph, they set it up to be, like Apple’s 1984 Superbowl advertisement decades ago, the biggest commercial event of the evening. Curiosity significantly amplified their commercial buy.
You can’t buy this publicity. As 19th century Tammany Hall machine politician Timothy “Big Tim” Sullivan said, “I don’t care what the newspapers say about me, as long as they spell my name right.” Mars knew a good thing when it saw it. Suddenly, everyone was talking about those hard shelled candies.
Fear not for the life of these adorable spokescandies. Like the televised funeral for Mr. Peanut to the Bob’s Big Boy campaign – “Will he stay or go?”, the M&M’s animated candies have already been reincarnated. As Arnold Schwarzenegger would say, “[We’ll] be back.”