There's this line I sometimes use in speeches, usually during the question-and-answer period. My presentations are about the ascendency of trust in the new Relationship Era of marketing, as chaos continues to subvert the primacy of advertising and positioning.
When the lecture ends, someone from the audience inevitably raises a hand and asks: "What is the one thing above all else I should do to succeed in the Relationship Era?"
I stand on the stage, scowling a bit as I appear to be pondering the question. “The one thing, eh?” I'll say. Then, after another moment, I'll nod my head sharply and offer my considered response:
“Don't be a dick.”
For some reason, that never fails to get a big laugh. But the rude answer is in dead earnest. We are ever more doing business with a public that actively avoids brand messaging, but carries on many brand conversations more or less behind the marketer’s back. That same public has also recently changed its calculus of what it values in brands.
As recently as 2006, Edelman Public Relations informs us, in answering what was the standard of trust, consumers most often cited “quality products and services.” By 2010, mere “quality” as a standard of brand confidence had dropped to number three in the Edelman Trust Barometer. Number one -- with 83% citing it -- was “transparent and honest practices.” Good conduct. Solid citizenship. Core values. The stuff of essential self.
Next March, when Can't Buy Me Like finally is released, you'll be able to see how trust is composed of three elements: credibility, care and congruency. Does the brand engender public trust by delivering on its promises? Does it understand consumer needs and seek to fulfill them? Does its every action resonate with deeply held values?
It really helps when the answer to all of those questions is yes. At the moment, a number of brands are experiencing the wages of the answer “no.” BP, Netflix, Johnson & Johnson, RIM, Chick Fil A and even Apple have learned the hard way that no brand -- not even a beloved one -- is immune to the consequences when it disappoints the public.
Which brings me to Susan G. Komen for the Cure.
In the 2010-2011 fiscal year -- in the midst of deep recession -- the charity raked in $439 million. Over three decades, it has provided almost $2 billion for breast cancer research, education, advocacy, health services and social-support programs in more than 50 countries. Its pink ribbon is ubiquitous and synonymous with the fight against breast cancer, becoming a symbol of such unquestioned good that commercial brands invested large sums just to be associated with it. These range from Yoplait yogurt to Major League Baseball, Smith & Wesson to Promise Me, “the scent of compassion and courage.” In 2010, 60 such licenses brought in more than $35 million a year in fees, not to mention the exposure they provided for the 130-some Komen races held annually around the world.
Komen Race for the Cure was ranked No. 2 among nonprofits by the Harris Poll in “brand health.” It was among the most trusted institutions in one of the society’s most trusted sectors.
Then the women in charge acted like total dicks.
In January 2011, under pressure from social conservatives, Komen announced under some flimsy pretext that it was withdrawing grants to Planned Parenthood for breast-cancer screenings -- a move that infuriated a whole lot more people than it mollified. As events unfolded, it emerged that Komen’s then brand-new senior vice president for public policy, Karen Handel, had been a Republican gubernatorial candidate in Georgia who had herself campaigned on a vow to eliminate state funding to Planned Parenthood. Handel denied a political agenda, but nonetheless quickly “resigned.” Komen rescinded its decision to rescind Planned Parenthood grants -- but that was too little, too late.
To the faithful, trust had been breached.
The year's Harris brand-health polling happened to fall in the midst of the furor, and Komen’s ranking plummeted from 2nd to 56th. Social media went predictably off the hook, as The New York Times put it, “with head-snapping speed.” Among the most common Twitter phrases: “I will never donate again.”
There are no figures yet available for the 2011-2012 fiscal year, but at Races for the Cure Around the country last spring, organizers reported drops in donations ranging from 15% to 35%. Which means that cynical political pandering cost Komen -- and its beneficiaries -- in the neighborhood of $100 million.
Komen was a Relationship Era marketer before there was a Relationship Era. Even in the analog days, it required very little advertising to spread its message of hope. Volunteers and pink ribbons were the best advertising imaginable -- and as a bonus, those 60 outside licensees paid Komen to spread the word further.
Now, as a penalty for betraying those relationships, Komen must resort to paid advertising to attempt something very un-Relationship Era: manipulate public opinion back to where it once organically was. By focusing on individual cancer survivors and drawing attention away from the organization itself, Komen hopes for an image reset.
Hmm. The campaign may or may not help restore the charity’s reputation, but in the meantime, every dollar spent on it is a dollar not distributed to agencies helping women. Do you wish to give up a weekend to race for an ad buy?
The fight against breast cancer is certainly a worthy cause, but you'd be forgiven for being leery. In the quest for hope, you shouldn't have to hope your charity has ceased being a dick.