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May 13, 2010
Spilling the Brand Promise

We love creating brands that aim for higher aspirations. Are they sustainable?

As I’m writing this, the situation in Gulf of Mexico is, well, fluid. We’re learning more and more that as BP spent hundreds of millions of dollars to reposition itself as an environmentally conscious company thinking “Beyond Petroleum,” they were cutting corners on safety and lobbying against tighter regulations. Now they’re stymied by a toxic mess while they point the finger of culpability at their business partners.

At the BP gas station near me, though, it’s business as usual. No protests, no boycotts, and no sign the parent company has a problem. If consumers can’t get worked up over a massive oil spill that has a financial and environmental impact on a big chunk of America, you gotta wonder what they’re really passionate about.

This makes me think BP’s problems won’t do as much damage to their own brand as it does to the advertising industry. If values don’t mean much, or we expect companies to break them, then why do we bother injecting unsustainable values into brands? What good are they?

BP dared to tell us they were going “Beyond Petroleum.” Of course, we all knew they wouldn’t do it overnight, but their commitment to alternative energy was at the forefront of their message. The truth is that advertising and marketing pushed that message -- we shaped the image, promoted the image, and foisted the image on consumers in the hope it would stick. And until recently, it did stick.

Now, not all brands have the high aspirations of BP. But in advertising these days, we act as if all our clients aim to serve a higher purpose. We want the brands we work on to have deeper missions than selling products. We want them to “engage in conversations” and “have a dialogue with customers.” We preach the new gospel of transparency and openness, but like a best friend who screws your girlfriend behind your back, it’s pretty easy to feel pissed off and betrayed when the actions don’t fit the words.

I don’t think this spill is the end of BP, and it likely won’t do long-term damage to its reputation. Because even in the age of social media, consumers don’t have that much control over brands. That there hasn’t been a bigger outrage over BP’s practices, or boycotts of its gas stations, suggests to me that either consumers don’t think they have control, or don’t care enough about the brand to want to assert some control.

While it’s true that consumers have gained control over when and where they hear from a brand, they don’t control the internal machinations of a company. Few folks are interested enough to pay attention before something goes kaflooey. In BP’s case, we’re interested in damage control but we didn’t care about damage prevention. Now that they’ve got a problem, BP will try to engage consumers in some sort of conversation about this spill, but don’t be fooled: They’ll spend more time using their lobbying influence behind closed doors to protect their core oil business at all costs despite what their ads say.

As advertising professionals, do we have any obligation to ensure that brands don’t promise more or aspire to something greater than they’re capable of delivering? We know when we’re lying about product benefits or claims, but when it comes to a brand’s values or corporate social responsibility, the truth is much, much murkier.

As a copywriter, I’ve written a number of mission statements and manifestos for clients. I’m good at writing those. But the reality is that I make the brands sound they way I wish they would be and the way the clients want to sound -- but not as they actually are. Those grandiose, aspirational statements you see corporations spew across the “about us” page of their Web site or in a 60-second image spot don’t come from the CEO, the officers, or the Board of Directors -- they come from ad agencies, branding firms, and marketing consultants. That’s why corporations rarely live up to those statements.

I think this quest to inject meaning into companies and brands could backfire on the advertising industry, big time. Because if we continue to pump companies up by touting their corporate social responsibility, they’ll inevitably fall short. Consumers will soon tire of being deceived so fervently, because it’s the worst form of deception: You feel scorned the most by people you’ve opened your heart to once they’ve betrayed your trust. If you don’t expect brands to live up to unrealistic value systems, you’ll rarely be disappointed.

Fortunately, entrepreneurs and start-up businesses are the ones that can live up to a high set of values. They can set out to change their industry, their market, or even the world. They have greater control over their company, their brand, and their destiny. That’s where the great possibilities are for marketing and advertising, and we need to encourage more of those businesses.

Unless your agency is willing to ride the wave of uncertainty with small start-ups, you’ll inevitably work for a client whose brand isn’t very malleable. No matter how hard you want to rebrand them, or get consumers to change their perceptions, you have a extensive history to deal with and a firm set of business realities that you must face.

Most clients are like BP. We drill to uncover the aspirational myth of the brand, but the truth spills out. So we shouldn’t be surprised when we have to clean up the sludge.


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Since 2002, Dan Goldgeier has been writing the most provocative advertising columns about advertising and marketing -- over 170 of them, covering every related topic you can think of. Now based in Seattle, Dan is a copywriter and ad school graduate who's worked at shops big and small. 

Visit his copywriting websitesee his LinkedIn profile or follow him on Twitter.

And please, buy his book for 99 cents.


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