In April of 2017 Pepsi released a primetime commercial featuring Kendall Jenner walking through a mob of protestors clashing with police. She parts the masses like the Red Sea before making her way to a handsome police officer and hands him a Pepsi. The refreshing beverage puts him at ease, along with the countless demonstrators. Peace is restored and everyone walks into the sunset.
Yikes! Pepsi’s ad was as flat as a cola sitting outside on a hot summer afternoon. The ad was unanimously panned and received swift criticism (Pepsi later pulled the ad). During a period of serious conversation surrounding social issues in America, Pepsi’s whimsical vision did not reflect the gravity of the subject matter. This botched attempt at inspiring and uniting people together came across as exploitative, insensitive and out of touch.
One of the most challenging obstacles to overcome in business is the accusation or perception of being tone-deaf. That pesky foot-in-mouth syndrome that seems to attract bad publicity like a fly to a lightbulb. Earning a reputation of being abrasive, insensitive or solicitous can drive away potential profit. Here’s why knowing what to say and when to say it can save your business a lot of unnecessary drama.
Why Tone Matters:
A good tone is the unison of two or more parts that, when combined, produces symmetry, congruity, and harmony. It is pairing a dry red wine with a quality cut steak. It’s an ounce of bourbon, a sugar cube and a dash of bitters. It’s an augmented sixth chord resolving to the dominant.
You, as the reader, may be feeling the tone of this article is turning pretentious with these highfalutin references and may even be considering to end here. That is the risk we face as marketers and advertisers when we make a public statement. By not carefully thinking about the language and images we use, especially in relation to their context, we can potentially alienate and repel customers.
Striking the right tone with the appropriate message takes awareness. It requires a keen eye to assess the evolving climate of the environment around us and respond accordingly. Most recently, for example, the development of the Coronavirus pandemic has caused many businesses to shift their tone and messaging to reflect the specific concerns of this issue. The results have been mixed.
Let’s take a look at a few:
The latest campaign from Progressive has hit it out of the park. It uses Zoom meetings, the premier virtual conference software, as its central motif. We find our usual lovable Progressive characters trying to navigate the new-normal of tele-communication. Unflattering camera angles, technical issues, a family member making a surprise cameo in the background. All of the universal quirks that make using Zoom, or a similar software, both frustrating and fun.
Progressive was able to achieve an effect many advertisers have not been able to accomplish these past couple of months. They established a connection to the pandemic without directly having to reference the virus. Rather than call attention to the negative aspects of Coronavirus (financial concerns, unemployment, sickness, etc.) Progressive gives us an endearing slice of life approach. We can all relate to the awkwardness of virtual meetings right now. Hanging out with friends via screen is less than ideal, but it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t make the most of it.
Around the country we have been asked to do one thing. One thing. Please don’t gather in groups of people if it is not necessary. Again, what have we been asked to do? Practice social distancing. Not a difficult concept to grasp. Apparently it is for Miller Lite, though.
Miller Lite had the brilliant idea to run a campaign in which the main thesis claims that hanging out with friends was the original “social media.” Promoting people to be more conscious of the present moment and enjoy the material world, rather than live in a virtual one, is actually a nice message. Unless, of course, we have to shelter inside and the only form of communication is, you know, social media.
Talk about getting kicked when you’re down. For a couple of months the majority of Americans have not been able to enjoy a night out with friends. Miller Lite is there to remind us of that loss, without offering anything constructive. At best the tone of these ads leave us melancholic, at worst they are irresponsible, promoting socializing and partying at a time when we have been explicitly asked not to.
Senator Mark Warner, one of the wealthiest members in US legislation, decided to jump on the Coronavirus bandwagon and offer all of us quarantined at home a “tuna melt” recipe. His attempt at appealing to the everyman was, uh… well, gross.
Politicians are already at the disadvantage of being perceived as aloof and out of touch with the average American. While he was authentic in his attempt to show solidarity with us plebeian constituents, his lunch of tepid microwaved bread and a disgusting amount of mayonnaise has us retching, not relating to him.
An individual, particularly a politician, is still a brand. Someone on Warner’s staff probably suggested to him it would be a smart move to don the chef’s hat and make a social media video. However, when the video is so bad it has people questioning if it is satire (really, it’s an alarming amount of mayo), maybe it’s wiser to take a step back and not attempt to be hip and trendy on Instagram.
But hey, let’s give Warner some credit. He solved America’s issue with partisanship by having Democrats and Republicans alike collectively eyeing the nearest trash can.
Sincerity vs Opportunism:
Businesses and organizations want to offer their empathy in times of crisis, economic downturn and tragedy. They want to demonstrate their understanding of the average person’s hardship in navigating a moment of inordinate struggle. One way to accomplish this is to scale back sales-pitches and deliver a message of hope, while also acknowledging the reality of present difficulties.
Throughout the COVID-19 crisis some of our clients at DDL participated in fundraising for charities in their local communities. Others extended generous gifts to their customers in the form of complementary services, deferred payment options, and providing free online support. There was never an offer attached to these initiatives, it was an honest gesture of compassion. Acting out of sincere interest for your customers and community will win the respect of a consumer and make them more likely to do business in the future when the economy recovers.
In the earlier case of Pepsi, the ad was seen as trivializing a contentious issue and capitalizing on a complex and politically charged topic for profit. The advertisement was so poorly executed, it would have been better to not make any commercial at all. The only thing worse than a company inappropriately inserting itself into a controversial conversation, is to dismiss it altogether. Consumers are emotional in their decision making processes and a bad experience, such as this commercial, could see Pepsi unintentionally driving up the investor speculation of their arch-rival competitor, Coca-Cola.
Show your Humanity:
When deciding on a tone, particularly in times of adversity, always revert back to the foundational building block; people. After all, businesses are nothing more than a collection of individuals working towards a common goal. Yet, we often perceive businesses and organizations as heartless entities and faceless enigmas that are detached from ‘real world problems.’ Championing the human element will make your brand appear sensitive, understanding and relatable.
To stay relevant and adaptable it is essential to employ a variety of approaches in your marketing. During an era of economic vitality, when consumers have disposable income they are willing to spend, it is okay to be adventurous in messaging, incorporating humor, levity, and perhaps even irreverence. In a period of financial contraction, consumer spending is reserved for essential needs. It is best to take a more conservative approach and offer what is necessary, not what is fun.
Always turn the conversation around and ask what the consumer needs, what are their goals, and how those goals can be met, not just what your business has to sell.