Branding is a discipline that has evolved over the past couple of decades to include more than just traditional marketing activities. It is no longer a sterile exercise in choosing a logo and a color palette. In fact, leading brands distinguish themselves from their competitors by focusing on delivering the best customer experience, while being able to go beyond the transactional nature of their commercial activity to stand for something and be able to carry a conversation with their customers.
In the digital era, social media acts as an amplifier of negative content. Existing in this digital atmosphere means taking on unavoidable risks, as no company can please the entire population, or even every segment of their audience all the time. Dealing with negative content or reviews is the new normal for leading brands. To stay on top, proactive reputation management is a must.
Leading Brand’s Objective: Turning Customers into Followers, Fans, and Advocates
Consumers can tell the difference between authentic, genuine branding and cookie-cutter marketing campaigns, shallow promises, and performative initiatives.
A now-infamous example of inauthentic branding that had significant financial consequences is Pepsi’s “Jump In” ad featuring model and reality TV star Kendall Jenner. After the ad received widespread criticism for trivializing the Black Lives Matter movement, Pepsi pulled the ad and issued an apology saying the commercial “missed the mark.”
However, the damage was done. Immediately following the ad’s release, Pepsi experienced its lowest consumer perception levels in 10 years, losing support from millennials in particular. What was the issue with the “Jump In” ad? Countless Tweets and online think pieces described the same issue: the video was tone-deaf, trivial, disingenuous, and revealed the company’s self-interest.
With the missteps made in this ad, Pepsi exemplified just how difficult it is to have a conversational brand. They took a risk by targeting a mass audience and combining a playful, nostalgic tone to an ad that took a firm stand point on a polarizing social movement. This strategy blew up in their face, and Pepsi was not prepared for the backlash. Furthermore, the commercial and subsequent drop in sales displays how even the most ubiquitous brands can suffer from a branding misstep.
To avoid these types of stumbles in branding, it is imperative for businesses to know their audience, and how they will react to their message and overall brand. Segmenting your messaging into different audiences and personalizing campaigns to specific values and interests will ensure you avoid the type of widespread backlash Pepsi received in their “Jump In” ad. We recommend focusing on three core principles: establishing internal values, prioritizing customer experience, and personalizing this experience while respecting consumer privacy.
Author and brand leadership expert Denise Lee Yohn theorizes that branding starts from within a company or organization. On her blog, Brand-as-Business Bites, Lee Yohn explains:
“Great brands start inside—this principle is about how great brands put first things first. They cultivate a vibrant corporate culture around their brand because they know their culture determines whether or not the brand is embraced by employees and other stakeholders and appropriately interpreted and reinforced with customers.”
In order to project a positive image and present a clear purpose to consumers, a company first has to practice its mission and values internally. This means establishing internal policies that support employee well-being and reward hard work and excellence. By building a positive internal culture, a company can build a reputation of integrity and exemplify its purpose.
Amazon is a prime example of a company struggling to reconcile its outward messaging and internal practices. In a Forbes article, Yohn explained that Amazon is at a crossroads regarding its public image and treatment of employees during the COVID-19 pandemic. According to Yohn, this crisis is an opportunity for the company to reclaim its image and become the “standard-bearer in employee engagement” through internal reforms.
Leading brands understand that positive customer experience, not clever product marketing, drives the bottom line. Of course, the physical products you sell or services you provide need to be top-notch. But how you treat and interact with customers along their entire customer journey is equally important, whether these interactions take place in person or online.
Curating a positive customer experience should include, but is not limited to:
- An intuitive user experience on your website and mobile app
- Providing relevant and useful information via email and app notifications—but never spam
- Reward customer loyalty with promotions and perks
- 24/7 customer support services provided by real human beings
- Fast and simple shipping, returns, and exchanges
- Building a platform for customer feedback
- Social media engagement
Personalization with Respect for Privacy
There is no one-size-fits-all strategy for consumer interactions—how your brand communicates with individual customers should vary based on their unique habits and preferences.
Consumers expect relevant communications and meaningful interactions based on where they are in their customer journey. However, providing this level of personalized service requires data segmentation that relies on a large pool of customer data.
While brands can obtain useful data from Point of Sales (POS), Mobile Apps, Social Media and CRM’s, they ultimately need to collect data directly from their site users. Key data points rely on the ability to identify interests and behaviors in consumers. Understanding your audience’s preferences, and how they react to certain messaging will allow you to segment your audience and target them with different branding strategies. Data that can inform customer experience improvements include information collected from your site’s pop-ups and pages, information collected at checkout, and information collected post-purchase. However, collecting and using this data opens the door to misuse, spam, and cybersecurity breaches—all of which can deter users and jeopardize consumer trust.
In the European Union, General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) legislation provides clear guidelines for companies that collect user data. However, laws are a bit murkier in the US, and US users don’t have the so-called “right to be forgotten” that EU users won in 2018.
However, the lack of federal regulation over data collection in the US doesn’t mean companies should ignore user privacy. A large part of developing and maintaining a leading brand relies on the ability to build trust with the public. To maintain consumer trust, companies should ensure transparency and follow strict protocols for collecting and storing data. Even outside of the EU, best practices for storing and using customer data include:
- Understanding and following all data collection and privacy laws in your jurisdiction
- Voluntary client data collection
- Clearly informing users when and what data is collected
- Giving users the option to opt out of data collection
- Protecting all collected user data with advanced and up-to-date cybersecurity software
Even Companies with the Best Branding Still Attract Negative Content
Proactive companies use authentic branding and personalized customer experience strategies to grow, engage, and maintain their customer base. However, even the most popular companies and big-name brands with seemingly unlimited resources make marketing mistakes like the Pepsi commercial. Brands can also suffer due to the personal actions of their CEO, shareholders, representatives, or high-profile employees.
It’s not hard to come up with examples of companies experiencing a reputational crisis or dealing with an unexpected threat to their public image. A clear example of how even a company with top-tier branding can still succumb to reputational damage is Starbucks.
Following the arrest of two Black men waiting to meet a friend at a Philadelphia Starbucks, the company required 8,000 of their US stores to close during mandatory anti-racial bias training. All in all, the incident cost the company an estimated $16.7 million in lost sales.
The widespread coverage and criticism of this incident were made possible by social media. For better or for worse, everyone with a social media account has a platform to criticize brands.
Social Media and Brand Reputation
Today’s consumers apply savvy and skepticism toward brands and corporations, and through social media, opinions can spread like wildfire. In the article “50 Ways Social Media Can Destroy Your Business,” SEO and digital marketing expert Neil Patel explains the various ways social media can wreak havoc on a brand. For example, public humiliation, resurfaced offensive Tweets, and account hijacks can cause insurmountable damage. Patel’s list also includes examples of how companies can make detrimental social media mistakes like capitalizing on tragedies, oversharing opinions, and pandering.
But how much do online opinions matter to sales and profit margins? According to the 2020 Strength of Purpose study from Zeno Group—a lot. As explained by Campaign US:
“One insight from the study reveals that consumers are four to six times more likely to purchase from, trust, protect and champion companies they believe have a strong purpose, but cancel culture is just as strong. More than three out of four (78 percent) of respondents say they have taken action in response to a brand doing something they disagree with, whether no longer buying from that brand, switching to a competitor or dissuading others from purchasing or supporting that brand.”
Tuning in to Online Conversation
In some circumstances, companies listening to social media chatter ultimately leads to positive changes. When a company makes a genuine misstep or “misses the mark” like Pepsi did with the Kendall Jenner ad, online criticism can force a brand to look inward and move marketing campaigns in the right direction. Or, as Lee Yohn suggests with Amazon, an online scandal can create an opportunity for widespread social change.
However, not all online criticism is constructive or warranted. Social media also provides a platform for emotionally charged individuals who over-exaggerate negative experiences with brands or even leverage baseless claims. It also allows opponents or competitors to wage smear campaigns based on opinions rather than facts or on flat-out falsities.
Companies, no matter their size or industry, need to understand the power of social media to amplify unfounded claims or spin a false narrative around company actions. Proactive businesses monitor social media and other online channels and have contingency plans for the creation and spread of negative content.
Catch and Address Negative Content Early: Don’t Let it Become an Issue
Monitoring Your Reputation
Active reputation monitoring allows companies to identify issues before they turn into full-blown PR crises. Brands can detect potentially damaging content by going through the same channels a customer would use when doing research, including Google Search, social media, online forums like Reddit, and review sites like Yelp.
Monitoring a brand’s online reputation is a full-time job. If you have the internal resources, you can use these tools recommended by SearchEngine Journal to monitor social mentions, locate user reviews, and track branded keyword searches.
Companies can also pair online reviews with data from their internal customer relationship management (CRM) software. A CRM allows businesses to look up customers and track their journey from initial contact to sale. Businesses can use the information to satisfy specific customer concerns and avoid similar reviews in the future.
If you do find your company at the receiving end of negative online content, you need to take swift action. Aside from mitigating the situation with a public statement or correcting a mistake with the customer involved, you should have a contingency plan for dealing with the negative content itself. Companies like Guaranteed Removals recommend a two-pronged strategy involving negative content removal and positive content production.
First, do everything in your power to have damaging content removed. Typically, this involves appealing directly to the poster or site publisher. In a concise email, request they remove the content and state your case for why they should honor your request.
Depending on the situation, you can bolster your request by proving the published content false, ratifying the issue discussed in the content, or issuing a genuine apology for any wrongdoing.
If your personal appeal doesn’t work, you may be able to take legal action if the content breaks defamation or copyright laws. Many website managers will remove content voluntarily as soon as they catch wind of a potential lawsuit.
In certain circumstances, you can successfully request content to be removed from Google’s index. According to the Google Help Center, Google may remove “personal information that creates significant risks of identity theft, financial fraud, or other specific harms.”
Positive Reputation Management
The defensive strategy of content removal goes hand in hand with the proactive strategy of publishing positive content that outranks the negative content on Google Search.
To do so, a regular, consistent publishing schedule should be developed. Content should tackle industry relevant topics that resonate with your brand’s different target audiences. It’s also important to employ SEO best practices, including keyword optimization, competitor gap analysis, building E-A-T (expertise, authoritative, and trustworthy) content, and link building. These strategies will help newly-published content rise to the top of relevant Google Search results pages, pushing down any negative results.
Risks vs. Your Reputation
Genuine branding efforts will produce not just customers but fans and advocates who spread the word about your company, products, and services. The rewards of authentic brand and proactive reputation management will compound over time, resulting in financial growth, broad brand awareness, and a more competitive edge.
As your company grows and earns trust from customers, stakeholders, employees, and other industry experts, Google will recognize the authority of your brand and prioritize your content in search results. Earning the top spot for relevant search terms will, in turn, drive sales.
However, all companies with any amount of publicity face the risks of controversy, including false claims and genuine mistakes. To get ahead and stay ahead, companies need to constantly monitor their brand, either internally or with the help of a reputation management company.
Reputation management can’t be seen as auxiliary—it’s an integral part of branding and is required to protect what you’ve invested in PR and marketing. Especially if your company deals with topics or content that Google deems relevant to YMYL (your money or your life), a hit to your reputation can undermine years of brand cultivation and building authority.
In an economy and business atmosphere that relies on Google Search to drive sales, companies can’t afford to overlook reputation monitoring and management. Without it, all it takes is a competitor launching a campaign to post fake reviews or a disgruntled customer Tweeting a damaging video to bring down your brand.
Leading brands want to be in the middle of relevant digital conversations, but sometimes you will be forced into conversations you don’t want to have. Companies need to have contingency plans, in the form of reputation management, to deal with situations that can damage their brands reputation.