Cultural pitfalls challenge global brands in a digital age

This Nikon billboard at the Hong Kong MTR Station drew the ire of animal activists.
This Nikon billboard at the Hong Kong MTR Station drew the ire of animal activists.

Social media spreads local message globally -- and sparks can fly from any direction

We are living in an age of hypersensitivity, where someone, somewhere, won’t like what a brand says or stands for. Add to this the growth in online platforms and you don’t have to look too hard to find anger on the internet.

A recent case in point is a Nikon billboard at Hong Kong's MTR station. It portrayed exotic stuffed animals with the tagline "I am life in every frame." The billboard prompted Ran Elfassy, director of Sigei Media and an animal conservationist, to contact Campaign Asia-Pacific in August to express his disgust. "A major brand like Nikon should know better than to glamorize the misuse of exotic animals," Elfassy complained.

Social media has also made it easier for a relatively innocent situation to spiral out of control. Someone taking offense against an issue can now tell the world about it instantly, as Filipino fast-food chain Jollibee found out only too well last year. When it announced it was opening a restaurant in Singapore, a rumor that the chain would only hire Filipinos went viral and incensed Singaporeans. The furor was sparked by the misinterpretation of an ambiguous Facebook post — of 62 people hired for the Singapore outlet, all but 13 were nationals or permanent residents of the city-state. But Jollibee took several weeks to respond directly, allowing the storm to gather pace.

So what is the impact on comms in a hypersensitive world? Should brands follow a cautious route for fear of causing upset and a brand backlash? Ambrish Chaudhry, regional strategy director, Asean, at consultancy Brand Union, believes the answer lies in not trying to be everything to everyone.

"Strong brands have always thrived on being part of cultural conversations. They used to create these through paid advertising and now they do it by being ‘real-time,’ " he says. "However, as brands try to leverage the social space in quick time it becomes easier to cross acceptable boundaries. The brands that manage this tight-rope best are ones with a strong sense of self, where everyone in the organization — and particularly in the marketing team — has a clear idea of what they stand for and what they believe in."

Chaudhry cites the example of Kraft-owned Oreo, which ran a 100-day campaign to celebrate its centenary in 2012, posting a different message each day.

"One of the messages included support for the LGBT community and, expectedly, this was hugely polarizing," he says. Despite strong public criticism, the brand held its ground, insisting that "diversity and inclusiveness" reflected its corporate values. Despite taking "some flak," Chaudhry says the response was "largely positive and supportive."

Yet customers are also equally quick to notice a lack of belief and authenticity in communications.

" ‘Bad press’ is no longer just the domain of traditional media," says Adrian Lee, group managing director for Southeast Asia at Cohn & Wolfe. "Citizen journalism is at the forefront, with negative news spreading faster than ever thanks to the 24/7 nature of social media." 

Lee says the lack of moderation of online forums "poses a big risk" for brands.

"Brands must change the way they view communications completely. They cannot afford to sit back and hope for the best," he says.

However, Jeremy Woolf, global senior vice president and North American digital and social media lead at Text100 New York, says there’s no need to be hypersensitive yet. To guard against the worst offenses, brands should establish a strong social monitoring program, be clear on who is driving conversations and topics around their brands, establish relationships with brand advocates, and prepare a comprehensive strategy to deal with potential crises or issues.

"Brands need the audacity to have an opinion, a brand ‘voice’ and personality. … I’d err away from being deliberately offensive, unless you’re aiming to shock, and even then it should be used with a great degree of caution."

Of course, brands can’t guard against everything. Things can and do go wrong, and sometimes brands will be fairly or unfairly targeted. How authentically brands respond determines the extent of the damage.

In Nikon’s case, it declined to comment on the ethics of using stuffed exotic animals in publicity photo shoots, despite several requests.

"When a situation arises, it’s best to be contrite, reinforce the intentions of the program, and hope brand advocates come to your aid," says Text100’s Woolf. "If all else fails, fall on your sword and kill the program."

Client comment: Constant vigilance

Simon Talbot, director of corporate affairs, Mondelez Asia-Pacific

Stay true to the brand architecture: It’s what has brought you success. Know what your employees are saying about your brands: They are your biggest asset and make sure you are aligned internally with what your brand stands for and how it is portrayed externally.

Keep listening to your consumers: Create frameworks that allow for co-creation and have the best online systems to detect sentiment and risk issues, insights, and emerging consumer trends.

Be vigilant with online assets: Switching off monitoring and engagement at 5 p.m. on a Friday doesn’t work: You always have to be "on" 24/7 and have a team to engage, block or course correct. Don’t assume online noise is the voice of your consumer: Many brands and companies either react too slowly, overreact or don’t register that the online noise isn’t actually their consumer.

While staying true to your brand is important, be contemporary and move with the times. Be hypersensitive in monitoring and course correction, but don’t jump at shadows. Weigh the risk and work out the likely impact.

Ultimately, if it’s not affecting current sales or jeopardizing future sales, use caution before playing into someone else’s cause.

Agency comment: You can’t always prevent the crisis, but you can cure it

Antoine Calendrier, VP and general manager, Waggener Edstrom China

Companies now operate in an environment where people whose interests diverge from that of the brands are primarily telling the brand story. Through social media platforms, stakeholders who now have powerful and credible voices are shaping brand perceptions. This can lead to a narrative disruption for the brand and a breach in the aspirational image the brand wants to convey.

More than ever before, brands need to have powerful "eyes and ears" systems, allowing them not only to identify key stakeholders’ positions, but also assess their influence and potential to impact the brand. On the flip side, one key positive consequence of this ability for stakeholders to raise their voices is that brands have to genuinely listen to their stakeholders’ requirements. This increased scrutiny has forced brands to do better, beyond just communicating better. Nowadays, no brand is fully immune to offenses.

While doing good and right is often an appropriate approach to prevent consumer grief, it may not be enough.

A few years ago, Dove — which has a very strong public image — was criticized for contributing to the destruction of the Indonesian forest, due to the use of palm oil in its products. Dove reacted appropriately by fully embracing the concern, collaborating with Greenpeace to address the issue, and coming back with alternative options to the use of palm oil that demonstrated its corporate responsibility.

In crisis prevention, brands need to play offense to proactively anticipate and address their stakeholders’ expectations. This process needs to be engaged in the form of permanent dialogue.

This story first appeared on

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