Marketing Alert: Clever Is Out, Smart Is In

Marketing today is changing by the minute, with many marketers genuinely struggling to keep up. Like it or not, we’re all operating in a hyper-connected marketplace in which the balance of power is shifting away from companies. To understand this new reality, witness the predictable disaster loop that happens when brands stray off course. Seduced by clever marketing ideas, marketers do stupid things. Offended stakeholders react, unleashing a tsunami of negative social media, traditional media piles on, amplifying the story, and brand managers have a very, very bad day. Brands quickly change course, trying to make it all go away before the brand suffers irreversible damage. 

Many marketers simply don’t understand the rules of this new game. There’s no better example of the tightrope brands are walking today than the recent stir-up triggered by yogurt giant Chobani about, of all things, science. In case you missed this tempest in a yogurt cup, here’s what happened. As part of a marketing campaign, Chobani recently put messages on some of its lids: “Nature got us to 100 calories, not scientists. #howmatters.” Scientists, yogurt fanatics, fact-checkers and Moms alike reacted strongly—shredding Chobani for not only being anti-science, but also for being misleading (turns out it takes quite a bit of science to manufacture yogurt). Chobani reacted swiftly, avowing, “We were too clever for our own good - didn’t intend to put down science or scientists with our recent lid. We discontinued it." 



Another recent, high-visibility marketing misfire? An unfortunate tweet by Delta Airlines after the US World Cup victory over Ghana. Delta’s tweet used a picture of a giraffe to represent that African country. One small problem: Giraffes aren’t found in Ghana. Some people got very angry, condemning Delta for attributes marketers generally don’t want associated with their brands: Insensitivity, disrespect, ignorance, racism, etc. One simple, well-intentioned tweet quickly became an embarrassment for an airline that tries hard to position itself as a savvy, global leader. 

There’s a critical lesson for marketers here. Chobani could not have been more right when they said, “We were too clever for our own good.” Clever alone just doesn’t cut it anymore. Operating a brand today requires more complex and nuanced thinking—from the loftiest heights of strategy right down to the most tactical of tweets. It’s simple, really: Clever is out, smart is in. Want to avoid being raked over the coals? Be a smart marketer who grasps the new marketing paradigm. Here’s how: 

Know Your Stakeholders

Most marketers think about their consumer target. That’s great, but go beyond the obvious to define your broader ecosystem of invested stakeholders. Carefully identify whom you might offend, alienate or marginalize. Chobani’s dissing of scientists was an obvious miss. Another example: The flap that Starbucks triggered a few years ago when it used a common, natural dye made from insects in its products. Vegan customers reacted, triggering a social media groundswell that forced Starbucks to reverse course. 

Embrace Substance

Make sure you are not just focusing on the fizzy, fun stuff. Dig deep to understand issues of material importance to your business and how these are relevant to your stakeholders. Understand how this intersects with your marketing strategies. A little bit of smart thinking by Chobani about its highly controlled, science-based supply chain would have quickly raised doubts about their ill-advised, anti-science messaging. Today, it’s all about both brilliantly clever—and substance-based—marketing ideas.

Let Your Values be Your Guide

Brands are under a bigger microscope than ever. Consumers today expect companies to do way more than just make money. They’re critically evaluating not just how you manufacture and market your products, but also the positive impact you’re having on society. Make sure you’re operating from a clearly defined brand purpose and core beliefs. If you stand for something meaningful and live by this as a brand, you’re less likely to fall for shallow marketing cleverness. 

In the adrenaline-fueled pursuit of glory and market share, it can be easy for marketers to forget that most consumers aren’t as enamored of marketing as they are. People remain fundamentally skeptical of companies (Research shows only about 15% of consumers globally say they trust companies deeply). Adopting a new mindset can drive better decision-making and help avoid unnecessary drama. Sound like work? Perhaps. But it’s nothing compared to trying to recover from a self-inflicted, trust eroding, spiraling-out-of-control PR disaster. Just ask Chobani.

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