THE BLOG
12/09/2014 05:33 pm ET Updated Feb 08, 2015

The Office Party From Hell

As the end of the year approaches, let's take a moment to figure out how we are going to survive the office party from hell.

Oh, not the ones we will all be attending in the next couple weeks. Making it through those is easy: Limit yourself to two drinks and compliment everybody. After an hour or two, announce you are calling it a night. Then, go get ripped with a few of your closest coworkers.

No, the office party from hell that I am talking about is 2014 itself. Thanks to the very public and cringe-worthy behavior of several brands, businesses and public figures, this year was as manic, irrational and uncomfortable as being trapped in a room with a bunch of drunks.

Loud, vulgar, sloppy, inappropriate, stupid and disheveled: They were branding under the influence. Somebody should have taken away their car keys, passwords and permissions to publish, poured them a cup of coffee and called them a cab.

The fails came fast and furious this year. From tasteless to racist, airlines to fast food, police departments to tech execs: It was one hot mic moment and embarrassing misstep after another, as everything from Twitter hashtag campaigns to private posts gone public exploded with desensitizing regularity. And utter predictability.

For every brand that seemed to explore the vast potential of digital content--from long-form storytelling to tweets composed with the precision of haikus--there were 10 others that flailed desperately. Pride comes before a fall and, apparently, obnoxious comes before a dreary series retractions and apologies.

We all had a good laugh. But I'm afraid that for even the prudent tea-totalers--us old-fashioned temperance types who think that official, public communications by a brand should involve some semblance of strategic reasoning--the hangover is going to last. Because what is really happening is not just a few stupid tweets, bad ideas or tasteless posts.

In 2014, we saw the rapid, thoughtless adoption of a mindset. It is the idea that brands can post, tweet, engage and communicate randomly--without thought, foresight, planning or point. That in the race for clicks, they can publish any ephemera that catches their fancy, in a zero-sum Groundhog Day of chased likes and meaningless metrics.

For too many brands in 2014, content became nothing more than fodder--ginned-up tricks and gimmicks designed for reaction rather than connection. Nearly every day and every turn unveiled tin-eared attempts at relevance--weak jokes, small savings, shilled promoting, forced puns, adolescent snark, lame clichés and unseemly cheap shots. It was a full-frontal (no pun intended) assault on the very core principles of branding itself--launched by the brand managers and communications experts who are supposed to be moving the discipline of engagement forward.

How can you win a game that resets daily? How can you achieve excellence and relevance with content created to be forgotten? It was a whole year of Snapchat-style branding--built to flash across a screen, trigger a response and vanish. Is it any wonder so much of it leads to such spectacular fails?

While it is easy to pick on and spot poorly conceived and clumsily executed social campaigns, it goes much deeper. And it touches on the fundamental truths of what brands are--at their best and at their worst--and what they must be if the very concept of brand will survive.

If we learned anything from 2014, it should be that brands have to stop acting like--and worse, aspiring to be--ordinary people. That is not what they ever have been or ever should be. A brand is a myth, a musical, an epic Western, a romance, an ongoing and changing oral history that comprises many voices, adapting to the times while staying true to itself and its storyline. That is their great power and magic. The more you diminish it with banalities, the dimmer it becomes.

To guide that careful balance of admiration and accessibility while moving a brand forward, especially at the velocity of digital, requires vigilance, discipline and strategy. And caution. That's a quality that seems to have been lost in the cavalier, click-to-post digital culture that has fallen up from our individual social profiles to be passed off as strategy by brands and businesses. It is one thing to have a publishing platform. But without a sustainable and strategic point of view, it transforms all the exciting new possibilities for engagement into a minefield of very public mistakes.

This holiday season, let's remember that only amateurs get roaring drunk in front of their bosses, managers or clients. Much less a global audience of fans, followers, stakeholders, critics and commentators.

Brand responsibly.