As we leave the period of unending suffering formerly known as 2016, many questions remain unanswered. For the bulk of the continental United States, the main one is “can I freeze myself for four years?”
But the ever pragmatic business community has a different set of questions: what do the likes of Trump’s election victory and Brexit say about the needs and mores of the public? Are they all idiots, and if so, can we take advantage of that?
How can the principles of their successful campaigns be applied to business marketing and brand image? Is it possible or wise for that strength of resolve, personality projection and ignorance of facts and morals to be applied by businesses in any way?
Pragmatism not populism
Rushing to conclusions is tempting, but like Trump’s access to nuclear codes, it’s also extremely dangerous. This stems from a couple of factors. One is that it’s simply too early to draw conclusions. Thousands of books will be written over the coming years on the turbulence of 2016, and at least 900 of them will be sanctimonious, patronising nonsense. Second is that Trump has the brand image of an uncompromising and successful pillock, carefully crafted over several decades.
This gave him a level of cachet that is perhaps still underestimated, and widely mocked. As a successful businessman talking about immigration within the context of business and the economy, his claims appeared to have some credence. The ultimate success of becoming President overrides minor concerns about whether writing off $900m makes you a savvy businessman.
Firebrand populism is also clearly dangerous for businesses. The frustrations Trump has latched onto with his rhetoric around race and isolationism may not be the reason most people voted for him, as many people have since made slightly too clear.
The retort ‘I didn’t agree with that, but…’ has been unconvincingly deployed in numerous vox pops, explaining why so many more people voted for Trump than the polls predicted. Contradicting that may be honest, but it won’t be appreciated.
The current consensus on his victory is that the promise to bring back jobs to middle America appealed to those still suffering from the economic crash. The more extreme statements appealed to the worryingly vocal Neo-Nazi demographic, and set him apart from the manicured, curated opinions espoused by most politicians.
Telling half the population to do one is, it turns out, preferable to the provable deception of undelivered promises. These include leaks such as those by Edward Snowden, which paint politicians as seeking shadowy agendas.
Of course, nobody can be completely candid about their aims and remain popular, as Trump has proved by reneging on campaign promises like repealing ‘Obamacare’. This applies especially to social media. And if there’s a central difference between business and politics, it isn’t necessarily a positive one.
Rather than being shrouded in secrecy, a business’s motive is pretty transparent. You can pretend you love your work and customers, but the unabashed intention is to make money. Coca Cola own Innocent Smoothies; we know how it works.
This isn’t an endearing characteristic when it comes down to it, regardless of how upfront you are. So the challenge becomes this: can businesses apply elements of the Donald’s all-consuming personality to social media, such that it becomes both shareable and immune to criticism?
Brand trumps business
For all his willingness to upturn the apple cart and say what he thinks, nobody still quite knows what Trump wants from the presidency. Rather than being cynical about a business’s actual intentions, people are cynical when businesses claim their intentions are anything other than making money. And simply coming out and saying ‘we just want to make money’ is unlikely to win friends in the same way.
The question then is whether businesses latch onto the same sentiments stirred up by Trump – the frustrations around a perceived onward march of political correctness, ‘safe spaces’, polarised discourse, and tensions around integration and multiculturalism. There is obviously an audience for this, but that audience is a flaming basket of deplorables. It’s a toughie.
However, there are examples that taking a stand can work out on both sides of the divide. An example is Lego pulling advertising from the Daily Mail. This decision, announced covertly in a Twitter reply, seemed to gain significant goodwill without perturbing Daily Mail readers, who are already morally opposed to Scandinavian imports.
Similarly many brands have been praised for supporting uncomplicated but bafflingly partisan human rights issues, such as the passage of gay marriage law in the US.
On the other hand, uncompromising humour in advertising has been successful for brands like Paddy Power, which riffs mercilessly on football tropes and social media posts, and Snickers’ understated “Get some nuts” campaign.
Many traditional brands have also taken a new media approach to humour, with naff parody sports videos spreading from the likes of JOE to BBC 3’s new online platform.
While these tend to be ‘laddy’ in tone, examples such as the Old Spice ads have found success with equal opportunity eye candy. TV channel Dave is another interesting example of a service building a distinct brand with familiar content. The channel cherry picked old shows from the BBC to suit a particular audience, and built its branding around this.
This jocular approach to ‘owning’ its old content was so pervasive that it got referenced in the BBC shows themselves, which then got repeated on Dave, creating a time paradox. Taking advantage of this confusion, Dave built a big enough audience to invest in its own new shows.
Separating social media
One clever way to cultivate a ‘risque’ brand image is to devolve social media control to a single defined personality (it’s working wonders for us). By taking on someone with an established reputation, it’s possible to separate the scope of social media coverage from the rest of the company.
These accounts essentially act as separate entities. Your social media dude or dudette retweets posts and replies to customers with minimal relevance to the company, trading on the absurdity of the approach. The company then gains goodwill via proxy as people enjoy the content.
This can be particularly effective as a means of acknowledging a checkered legacy for a product or service. The once colossal video game company Sega has allowed its social media chief to openly mock its own properties on official accounts.
By relentlessly resharing memes and responding to harsh criticism with self parody and deprecation, the company has regained lost affection (while still making truly dreadful games).
This also frees up responsibility for responding to genuine customer complaints, and provides a shield from damaging criticism. A less earnest business will be cut more slack, and the business can always detach itself from its social media presence if the individual starts quoting Hitler, or Milo Yiannopolous. This unique online presence also marks your social media out from potential imitators and hijackers trying to misrepresent you.
Of course, the ultimate barometer of what people will want is to, y’know, talk to them. An over reliance on public polling and voluntary surveys has been patently & massively undermined by recent failures to predict literally anything correctly.
Meanwhile only 10% of businesses regularly get customers in a room to talk to them, a figure we saw somewhere and assumed was correct.
There is always a risk of the ‘focus group’ effect, which overcorrects for the opinions of a relative minority and gives you the theatrical ending to I Am Legend, which is rubbish. But as long as you’re discerning, this kind of data can at least be useful to plot general trends and outlooks.
If Trump’s victory has shown anything, it’s that large organisations need to be more mobile and attentive to the needs of the public. In 2017 there can be no safe assumption of popularity, truth, justice or the colour of the sky. Sales are obviously a useful indicator, but marketing and interactions need to be empathetic and clued in to the online discourse.
Often this means hiring someone who has an ear to the ground and a natural sense of the tone and content that work for the audience. An example of doing it wrong would be BBC Sport’s online coverage, where the liberal use of emojis and slang have fundamentally undermined the BBC’s image, and will lead to the eventual abandonment of the licence fee.
This can also mean getting CEOs and executives on Twitter themselves. This seems terrifying for a few reasons, namely that people on Twitter don’t do much else. But even if you aren’t active, you gain some kudos for just being there. You’re notionally open to rebuke, and notionally tempted to tell people to sod off, which is reassuring.
If you’re not a big weirdo, sharing your activities and hobbies will have a humanising effect. Perhaps most crucially, being bombarded with criticism and complaints is a fascinating window onto the issues of your customer base. Nothing will prepare you for 2017 better.