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July 2, 2015
Best of TZM: Branding in a World of 7 Billion Opinions
Everyone has a say about brands. Whose voice really matters?
On a road trip two weeks ago, my wife and I stopped in to a pizza joint in a small California town. The pizza was really, really good, but as is our habit, we checked Yelp reviews to see what others had thought of the place. One two-star review stood out because it read, “I have never had New York-style pizza so I have nothing to compare it to except regular pizza.” Clearly we weren’t looking at an connoisseur’s take.
We’re deep into to The Opinion Age (capitalized for faux importance.) And you know what they say about opinions — everyone has one. One loud voice can drown out thousands of others and even drive a brand’s reputation into the ground. So what happens when a brand crafts an image that doesn’t jibe with a customer’s reality? How do we coach our clients to respond to public opinion?
Anyone who’s ever worked on a rebranding of a client has gone through some sort of messaging and values exercise. We’ll ask, “So what does this brand really stand for?” And we fill whiteboards and PowerPoint decks with words like “authenticity,” “happiness,” “conscious,” and other aspirational words.
Clients pay lots of money for this type of thinking because brands still need to shape their own image and narrative. They can’t afford to be defined by others who may have another agenda. In politics, which is now one of the most extreme forms of marketing, it’s unacceptable to let your opponent define you.
Public opinion carries lots of weight these days. And let's be honest, too many negative reviews of a business, taken in the aggregate, often represent the real truth about a business. But quite a number of stories have referred to the impact of even a few negative Yelp or TripAdvisor reviews on businesses. On my recent trip, I heard from more than one business owner, “If you liked us, please give us a great review on TripAdvisor.” Now, I’m not in the habit of leaving reviews on those sites, so does my deliberate absence actually hurt a business that offers me a good experience?
Big brands have the money to throw around to create the image they want. I’ve generally had a good experience with Comcast, but know many others who haven’t. That negativity doesn’t stop the company from promoting itself in the most superlative terms. Still, the people who have problems with Comcast make the most noise about it. At what point do a few opinions matter so much they trump a silent majority?
The Opinion Age is equal parts exciting and frightening for brands. People are talking about brands, but the “conversation” many brands say they want to have with consumers can turn into megaphone-like shouting contests in a flash. And often a particular narrative gets spread fast in our retweet and linkbait media culture. Perception becomes reality: That Radio Shack is a dying business, Comcast is scummy, or Abercrombie & Fitch is over are the types of things I constantly see and read.
And just like the pizza reviewer who doesn’t know what New York-style pizza is, our society has become perfectly okay with the idea that anyone can render their opinion, shout it across the universe, and have it ascribed equal importance to everyone else’s opinion.
I’ve noticed this myself, in this very space. While I’ve been writing this column for almost 13 years now, I’m now one of thousands of ad people who write, comment, blog, opine, or vent about our business. So any credibility I might think I possess by having done it for so long, well, that doesn’t count for jack squat to most people.
As long as there are Yelp-like sites, blogs, columns, comment sections on news sites and Reddit boards, opinions about anything and everything will fly. (Particularly for a subjective business like advertising and marketing. Just wait until the Super Bowl next month. No matter how much of an ad expert you might be, I guarantee that your Top 5 Best Commercials list will exactly match someone else’s Worst 5 list.)
Since The Opinion Age is here to stay, the best things we, and our clients, can do are listen with consideration and react without panicking. No one person or brand can satisfy everyone. No small business can please every customer. There will be negative opinions and reviews. When there’s a legitimate gripe about bad service, the best course of action a company can take is to handle it quickly and effectively.
Building a strong brand that doesn’t bend to temporary whims or the condemnations of a few is not an easy task. If a brand’s image truly doesn’t reflect reality, it’ll be exposed. But we have to remember that many people now have great power, and don’t always use that power with great responsibility.
But then, that’s just one advertising person’s opinion.

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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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