The Blame and Shame Approach to Marketing May Be Getting It Really Wrong

The marketers who are old enough to remember the time when one nearly universal marketing taboo was to mix politics or religion with business for fear of insulting some portion of a customer population may be struggling to understand the strategic objectives of some major brands who are flaunting the once well-established and practiced edict. It’s not that marketing traditionalists don’t understand the fact that a new generation of consumers favor companies and brands that are supportive of the changing social values, they do. It is also true that many established marketing professionals profess personal support for many consumers’ positions. The diversion away from the best-practice comfort zone for many marketers comes from the seemingly overt effort of some campaigns to blame and insult large segments of consumers in hopes of capturing the favor of a specific market segment.

The Nike athletic and sportswear brand is valued at a whopping $32.4 billion and is the fashion industry’s number one brand value. Many believe that Nike’s bold, think-outside-of-the-box marketing efforts of the past are the very reason for its leadership position. Earlier this year the brand declared 2019 as the year for women athletes. The company sees its role as inspiring women to achieve their best in all athletic performances. Richard Haigh, managing director Brand Finance, credits Nike’s “bold marketing” and its values-based messaging as key to its continued hold on apparel’s number one slot. The message, designed to promote women equality in sports, is smart and positive in tone and correctly supports a widely held belief that women are routinely unfairly treated in professional sports.

However, Nike’s recent recall of its July Fourth Air Max shoe, which featured a Betsy Ross flag emblazoned across the shoes heal, because it may be “an offensive symbol because of its connection to an era of slavery”, failed to find the same level of favor among many of the most avid brand supporters. The Betsy Ross flag has long been regarded as a symbol of the American Revolution and a young, newly formed republic that sought to alleviate its citizens from the oppressive governing of England, a republic where individual freedoms were guaranteed to be God given to all and free from intrusion or suppression by any entity of government.  Betsy Ross was a role model for young women and became an important figure in American history representing the contribution of women in the American Revolution.  The contrast of style and tone of the two messages could not be more different. The potential problem with the company’s newest advance into the social arena is that the move to avoid offending a portion of its potential target audience has really offended an even larger portion of its audience.

Other well-known brands are learning that proper messaging is critical in order to avoid their well-intentioned efforts backfiring with large segments of consumers. Disney’s concern for the effects of plastic bags on the environment led it to ban the use of plastic containers in all its stores nationwide in 2018. Unfortunately, the method and messaging of the move angered customers when they were confronted at the counter by sales staff who refused to provide a free bag for their purchases. Dick’s sporting and hunting goods segment crashed and burned when they moved to eliminate certain firearms from their shelves in 2018. Large numbers of sportsmen and sportswomen abandoned the retailer when the message appeared to find them complicit in a string of terrible deadly mass shootings.

Preachy, blame and shame the consumer messaging has many a customer heading for the door. Some are retaliating by publicly taking the purveyors of poor messaging to task.  But most disgruntled and offended consumers will simply and quietly show their disdain by moving onto other competing brands who are providing better and more acceptable solutions to the important social and political issues of the day, while maintaining the virtues of customer sovereignty.

Companies, large and small, must be careful to realize that while it is beneficial to be focused on consumers’ appreciation for social, political and religious issues, proper messaging is critical. In the end a company’s path to success lies in the fact that they are first and foremost marketers of a tangible core competency to a diverse and complex society.

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