THE BLOG
01/30/2015 12:06 pm ET Updated Mar 31, 2015

Responding to a Cultural Moment? Don't Use Deflated Creative

Did you like Krispy Kreme's response to the 'Deflategate' cheating scandal?
How about Apple's 'Je Suis Charlie' banner on their French website? Starbucks' homage to Martin Luther King?

Call it the New Holy Grail of marketing -- a brand generates speed-of-light positive buzz by jumping in on a timely social issue or responding to a cultural moment. To this day, Oreo's infamous blackout tweet during the 2013 Super Bowl is considered the epitome of a social media win, garnering 525 million earned media impressions, which is five times the number of people who actually watched the game. Ben & Jerry's delighted their fans last year with a tweet about the legalization of marijuana in Colorado. And most recently, Krispy Kreme scored a real-time marketing touchdown with their Deflategate-themed social image.

You might be saying yourself: "I have an idea. How about if I don't play the game at all? Isn't that the safest play?" Here's the thing: branding is all about creating value beyond product benefits. We live in an era where people use brands, not only to express their personal style, but who they are and what they believe in. When 87% of consumers believe businesses should consider societal interests as much as their own interests, it speaks to new consumer expectations: reflect my values, reinforce my self-concept, earn your identity.

Staying on the sidelines isn't going to cut it. People expect brands to play an active role in their personal lives, which means participating in the conversations that are relevant to them. Like it or not, at some point, you have to take the mic. When you do grab mic, it's helpful if you don't act like the plowed groomsmen at a wedding. Nobody doubts Drunk guy at Wedding means well with his impromptu speech - what he's lacking is execution.

Execution starts with knowing who you are as a brand (it also helps if you're not knackered when you tweet.) These social movements are opportunistic but fleeting and your behaviors are a reflection of your true (brand) self. Every action you take defines you. So make sure you know: Can you execute effectively and remain true? What's your purpose? Why do you do what you do? What's your reason for existing? What is your soul? For example, Southwest's purpose is short and sweet: democratize the skies. Ben & Jerry's purpose is to bring joy to the belly and the soul, which they accomplish, not only through a product mission, but also a larger social mission to positively impact society and the environment.

Voicing their support for causes like Occupy Wall Street and the legalization of marijuana is a way to earn their identity as a brand committed to progressive values. After all, it's not enough to say it internally. You need to prove it publically. That's how purpose becomes authentic, through deeds and actions, by taking a real stand. "With values-led marketing you just go out there and say who you are. You don't have to fool people to sell them your product," Ben Cohen explained in his book Ben & Jerry's Double Dip, co-written with Jerry Greenfield.

Once you've defined your purpose, then you have to establish your overall voice. Does your voice reflect your personality? If we personified Haagen Daz, she might be Catwoman - sophisticated, indulgent and worldly. Would Ben& Jerry's be Seth Rogen - a fun-loving oddball stoner?

While Ben & Jerry's has made moves of late to look a little less tie-dye and a little more premium, their core personality is expressed in everything they do - including wacky-named flavors (including one based on their support of marriage equality) and whimsical packaging. Their Colorado marijuana tweet worked because it conveyed a mischievous sense of humor, which felt in line with their quirky personality, as well as their brand philosophy, if it ain't fun, then why do it? Not surprisingly, Ben & Jerry's Colorado marijuana tweet began as an internal joke, according to Mike Hayes, the brand's Digital Marketing Manager. It felt authentic because it was authentic.

If Haagan Daz had made the same visual joke, it would have fallen flat as a result of feeling forced, inauthentic and out-of-character. Besides being genuinely clever, no small feat, Krispy Kreme's "Deflategate" social image felt in step with their cheeky personality. On the other hand, a brand like Charles Schwaub is all about stability, intelligence, competency. Let's hope they never tweet: "Deflated balls? Talk to Chuck."

Brands often get caught up in the question -- Should I comment on this event? Or should I take a stand on this issue? -- that they lose sight of perhaps the most crucial component to a successful branding campaign. Namely, that the creative execution be as strong as the sentiment is authentic and on brand.

Starbucks' recent ad saluting Martin Luther King is a great example of delivering a pro-social message that feels on brand. But the real power of the ad is in the creative execution, which was done in-house. The ad features the alphabet spelled out in simple white type against a black background, only the letters are in reverse order, revealing the sequence M, L, K, which is highlighted in red. The copy reads: "It's time to look at things differently. Again."

Printed in the New York Times and posted on social media, the ad garnered glowing responses from the public and in the media. It works because it tells a straight-from-the-heart story through simple visuals and impactful copy, a story that reinforces their brand purpose and brand image (warm sincerity with a double shot of social activism and community).

By placing a discreet version of their signature logo at the bottom, and nothing else, they communicate to the audience that they are behind the tribute but recognize the messaging priority. To do otherwise would be insincere. As well as sending a message of support to the cause of racial justice, Starbucks is conveying a message that, in all aspects of their business, they are unafraid to "look at things differently." In turn, this allows their tribe of coffee-drinkers to reinforce their own identity as socially conscious free-thinkers.

For the defending Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks, who are also a multi-million-dollar brand, their attempt to honor MLK was infinitely less successful. One day after their stunning comeback over the Green Bay Packers, which earned them a Super Bowl bid, the Seahawks posted a tweet that read, "We shall overcome #MLKDay"-- comparing their unlikely comeback to the civil rights movement. Adding insult to injury, it included a photo of quarterback Russell Wilson, crying tears of post-game joy, captioned with this MLK quote: "Take the first step in faith. You don't have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step."

As much as branding experts preach sincerity and authenticity, the Seattle Seahawks and the Starbucks shared the same positive sentiment -- the difference is that one Seattle brand nailed the creative execution, the other botched it.

Even when you have the right brand message, getting the ad right still comes down to creative execution. Oreo proved this point with a social media campaign in 2012 called the "Daily Twist", in which they posted a daily image of an Oreo cookie depicting a pop culture moment, past or present, tied to that date. Part of what made Oreo's jump into the cultural conservation successful was the way it projected a humanistic vision, from a 7-layer rainbow Oreo to celebrate Gay Pride Day to one featuring red-dyed cream marked with tire tracks to honor the Mars landing.

For Oreo to come out and honor Gay Pride Day surprised many - it's not like they are known as the Ben & Jerry's of cookie purveyors. Although the tweet did spark some mild backlash, the overall campaign succeeded for two reasons: the strength of the creative concept (it was not only about taking a bold stand on that one social issue but "filtering the world through the playful imagination of Oreo," a true expression of their brand personality) and its artistic realization -- it was visually striking and told a story in a clear and entertaining way.

It's easy to forget but Oreo wasn't only brand to chime in during the infamous power outage at the Superdome, nor was Krispy Kreme alone in taking to Twitter to offer their two cents on Deflategate. Why did so many other brands fail to gain any traction? Ultimately, it's the same reason why one of the two teams playing in the Super Bowl is going to lose this Sunday: lack of execution.