5 Forces That Will Rock Your Business
By Christopher Graves, Ogilvy PR
A couple of decades ago, it took big money to do a high-end parody of a corporate advertising or communications campaign. NGOs, activists, or satirists didn’t have those kind of budgets. So any parody relied on inexpensive stunts. Video cameras cost tens of thousands of dollars and a decent video editing suite could run into seven figures. But your work would remain an obscure bit of vanity publishing because apart from cable community access channels, no one would distribute it. Now you can record decent video on a smart phone and edit it on free or nearly free software. Then you upload it for free to YouTube or its equivalent and you have global distribution.
Satirists, activists and parodists now have all the tools and distribution they need to mock or eviscerate any corporate campaign. We also know intuitively that David beats Goliath in all internet, web or social media battles, so once the corporate brand has been attacked – no matter how viciously or unfairly – it cannot win by fighting back with legal threats – no matter how justified. It will lose in the court of public opinion and all its heavy-handed responses become part of the ongoing comedy routine. Twitter handles are hijacked. Websites fall prey to masquerading brandjacking hit men. The more distinctive your brand, the more likely you will be brandjacked.
Here’s an example. Chevron launched a campaign that meant to pull no punches on the industry. It raised assertions in a look that reminds you of street protest posters. Then it concluded by saying “We agree” in big red-stamped letters. It meant to demonstrate that Chevron was not an adversary, but a partner in the big meaty challenges (see example, left). Then along came the brandjackers. First, they parodied the print advertisements with a similar look but mocking copy (see example, below right).
Meanwhile, on television, Chevron ran a campaign of side- by-side boxes featuring one person asserting a position, for example a teacher saying we need to invest more in renewable energy, while the responsive Chevron employee in the other box agrees, putting forward proof points of the good work their company is doing. Then along came comedian Will Ferrell’s band of Funny or Die parodists. In the Funny or Die brandjacked version, the would-be teacher says: “I’m an actress pretending to be a teacher… they told me to say ‘renewable energy’.” Simultaneously the bearded man in the other box says: “Well they told me to say ‘renewable energy’ and they put me in this denim shirt…” They go on to mock the company, saying: “Chevron is spending tens of millions of dollars on this ad campaign because it’s easier than making changes.” Audiences who see the original ad followed by the parody usually howl with laughter (assuming they are not in the energy sector). When asked why they laugh, they respond: “because it reveals the hypocrisy…” or “because it feels like there is some element of truth in the parody.”
Chevron has no doubt done all the things it lays out as proof points in its campaign, from investing in renewable energy, to creating jobs, and supporting communities and small business. But the overarching narrative for oil companies is so very negative, that when Chevron put forward a campaign that sought to be forthright and candid, they were cold-cocked with a parodist’s punch that landed with laughter.
The laughter reveals a kind of cognitive dissonance, a gap. That gap usually emerges from a split between the publicly-held perception or reputation of the company, and the image it is putting forward. All humor stems from a kind of misfire or hitch. Now let’s look at another brandjacking example. This time from a brand that is seen as sensitive, caring and authentic. But nonetheless a target. The Dove Beauty Sketches featured a three-minute video mini documentary approach to women’s self-esteem, an ongoing challenge the Dove brand brings to light. In this experiment, women describe themselves to a professional, police forensic artist who sketches them without seeing them. The same artist does a second sketch guided by a third party who describes each woman to him. The sketches are unveiled and the women are clearly struck by how low their own view of themselves is compared to that of a complete stranger. In each case, the sketch they guided is less accurate and less attractive.
Then there is the brandjacked version. Here the video is copied in every formatting detail except the men completely reverse the dynamic. The stranger describes them as unsavory, unattractive types while they describe themselves as Hollywood heartbreakers such as George Clooney or Brad Pitt. Again, the audience roars with laughter but it is different this time. When asked at whom they are laughing, without exception they say “men!” Dove remains unscathed and better – the parody supports the whole brand premise that media, society and men batter women into self- esteem issues.
This side-by-side comparison can be very valuable to test whether there are cracks in the integrity of a reputation or whether it is so strong it withstands the parody or even grows in strength. Companies should periodically give their brands and images a parody test as a kind of reality check or stress test. Parody falls flat if it is just mean spirited. But if it resonates and triggers laughter, then the brand or corporate image may suffer from integrity cracks that cannot be ignored. In some cases, the brand may be held hostage by an entire industry reputation, which makes it harder to attain escape velocity. In that instance, it is better to have a real debate than a campaign made to look like a debate.
Brandjacking has gone beyond parodies of campaigns to creating altered realities and faked worlds. Greenpeace, collaborating with the activist group called the Yes Men, created an elaborate hoax in the form of a faked media event in the Seattle Space Needle. They crafted an entire piece of theater with actors playing the role of Shell executives and invited guests. The event was billed as a celebration of Shell winning rights to drill in the Arctic Circle. A phony public relations firm sent out invitations to the phony event called ‘New Frontiers’. At the event, which was captured on video, an 84-year-old well-dressed guest is offered a symbolic cocktail from a small, mocked-up drilling rig. But it goes awry and the rig starts spewing dark fluid all over her as she screams. The guests react in sympathy as the video capturing continues. Then a Shell executive demands the person videoing the scene shut it down. An Occupy activist uploaded the video and media outlets such as the Seattle Post Intelligencer carried the story of a Shell event gone bad. The video garnered more than 800,000 views.
The activists also created a fake Shell website, fake ad campaign and a fake press release threatening a phony lawsuit. But nothing was real. The event was completely faked by Greenpeace and the Yes Men. The old woman humiliated by the broken model oil-rig was an activist actor. The Shell ‘security’ were actors. The documentary video was believed to be real for a short time and duped the media (Gawker, Gizmodo, Seattle Post Intelligencer) who reported as if it were a Shell event that backfired. The Yes Men and Greenpeace launched one final shot – a fake threat from Shell’s legal department threatening bloggers, who of course proudly posted the threat thinking it was real. The official-looking release stated:
“These people have gone to great lengths to mislead the public about the age and reliability of our Arctic vessels, and otherwise damage Shell’s credibility. Shell can obviously not allow this sort of misinformation to proliferate and we are taking the firmest legal measures against the perpetrators of this campaign.”
Assessing the event, a Greenpeace executive commented: “We’re mastering corporate tools and using them effectively against corporate villains. It’s quite new, it’s fun to do, and it’s very effective.” For companies now navigating a world of deception and brandjacking, it is crucial they differentiate themselves through their own sincere candor. While many actors over the years have been quoted as jokingly advising: “The secret to success is sincerity, and once you learn to fake sincerity you’ve got it made,” this will never work for companies – or activists. Greenpeace perhaps delighted in its clever duping of the media, but lost trust with the media it duped.
Companies need to engender trust and that never comes after such a deception. There is such a thing as honest parody, however, and that’s fair game. Will your corporate communications, branding and marketing hold up under the sincerity stress test? Or will a parody reveal those fissures in brand integrity? To stress test your corporate narrative, have employees participate in an exercise internally, creating a parody of their own company – what does that reveal and how will you address it so that the external narrative resolves any gaps between what the company wants to put forward in terms of image and reputation, and what perceptions are held in the minds of people?
This extract was first published in WPP's Atticus Journal (Volume 21)