If brands really cared they’d stay out of news stories

Rob O'BrienIn this guest post, Rob O’Brien argues that brands do not really care about people, they’re merely in the business of ‘care imitation’.

As pollution levels started rising in Singapore recently, an offer was put out for a free one-day gym pass at True Fitness. The number of passes given away were linked to the Pollution Standards Level (PSI) – the official measurement of air pollution. It was a piece of guerrilla marketing by the sportswear firm Adidas.

‘Pretty clever,’ I thought initially. But was it really that clever – or just opportunistic?

Clever? Or just opportunistic?

Clever? Or just opportunistic?

More importantly, does it betray a bigger problem brands face when they thrust themselves into the centre of a developing news story – wilfully blind to its outcome.

McDonald’s similarly jumped on board the ‘haze’ craze with a PSI themed promotion, and they were duly forced to make an apology. Unfortunately, this has become depressingly common – brands rushing to attach themselves to large breaking news stories, getting it wrong and quickly apologising.

The evolution of social media has brought with it the notion of the caring brand – the brand that laughs at your jokes, wants to cry with you while you’re wearing their logoed apparel, wants to be a part of the news stories you read and gives you the Heinrich Maneuver when you’re choking on a peanut.

Every inch of cyberspace is clogged up with marketing and PR messages about how caring, innovative and funny brands are today. But do they care? Of course not.

All brands want to be loved, and through social media they’ve now got ample information about the things you love and care about; they’re now in the business of care imitation. So if something comes along that you care about – an environmental problem, traffic chaos – they can quickly care about it too.

This ad was "not intended to trivialise the current haze situation", groveled McDonald's

This ad was “not intended to trivialise the current haze situation”, groveled McDonald’s

It’s clever to suggest brands are caring and meaningful. But ‘caring’ is commerce-less: it can’t be equated to sales of running shoes or cans of soft drink. Rubbing yourself up against the meaning created by an issue doesn’t make you meaningful.

With every reminder that a brand cares, the notion gets a little bit more ridiculous, particularly when they push so hard to insert themselves into news stories. Championing the big issues of our time, like the widening gap between rich and poor, ageing populations, and environmental crisis, is quite easy to do; living those big issues is a whole different ball game.

Offering gym passes for those wearing Adidas branded clothing only and pegging the number of passes to official pollution levels shows breathtaking indifference when you consider how events could have unfolded. It’s a bit like throwing a life vest only to those drowning in Adidas t-shirts.

There’s more thought required to this: it’s way too self-serving to promote your brand alongside an unfolding news story, it’s a mistake brands keep making time and time again. If the brand cares, it shouldn’t have to try so hard to find opportunities to display it. It should just care.

Rob O’Brien is a media specialist and writer in Singapore. He is author of his own blog and tweets at @robobr7.


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