Thursday, 7 July 2011

News of the World advertisers need to think less about facts, and more about perceptions

The public and political reaction to the News of the World phone hacking has been unprecedented. It's rare that the response to a political or media issue is so unanimous and hostile. While there is lots of hyperbole and hand-wringing, I feel this is one of those times where it is entirely justified. Vince Cable must be feeling very smug at the moment. But brands who advertise in the paper will be nervously judging the mood and trying to work out what urgent changes they need to make to their marketing tactics.

Lot of research will be in progress at the moment to determine just how toxic an association with the NOTW actually is. In monetary terms, how does the loss of cash (from buying the ad space) and value generated by the advertising, weigh up against the loss of brand equity from the downturn in corporate reputation? As Keith Trivitt points out, brand reputations can take years to build but can be tossed away in a matter of days.

This research might be asking how seriously the whole episode is perceived; how the NOTW reputation has suffered; how consumers would be disposed towards brands who advertise in the NOTW; and, perhaps most importantly, to get a sense of how long this whole shitstorm will last for. My guess is that brands would be best advised to pull their ads from the NOTW with immediate effect, sit tight and monitor the situation in the coming days, and quietly carry on as normal after everything's blown through. The losses could be measured in the tens of thousands in most cases - chickenfeed to many brands. This can be offset by the uplift in brand equity as the result of a "good" (in the eyes of the Twittersphere) response.

Ford is a case in point. A solid, firm response was met with a positive reaction online, notwithstanding the point that their media buying agency, Mindshare, are simply putting more ads in the Screws' sister paper, The Sun. Other brands can minimise negative sentiment with decisive reactions. Yes, there is an argument against doing anything rash. But this is a world where "rash" and "social media" are bosom buddies.

The Co-Operative would do well to learn that. Contacted early for a reaction, a spokesman gave the rather blunt reply, "These are allegations. We have no plans to withdraw our advertising."

This was badly misjudged for several reasons. Firstly, they badly judged the prevailing wind. I have never seen a social media backlash as savage and prolonged as this one (most flare up and die down in a few hours). Next, the Co-Op's brand is built on a central platform of an ethical stance. If you shout loudly about "taking ethics to the next level" then the last thing you want to be doing is letting people actively associate you with such a putrid affair. To repeat the point: brand reputations are built carefully over a period of years...why throw it away? Thirdly, the fact that at the time they were only "allegations" is neither here nor there as far as the brand is concerned. A brand is simply "a collection of perceptions in the mind of the consumer" according to Nigel Hollis. That's all; just a set of whims, visions, discernments, not rational but only in our minds. The Co-Op does indeed have a strong brand identity, but given that that identity itself is irrational, why justify the marketing tactics with such a wooden, rational response? It sounded as if the Co-Operative were trying almost to stick up for the Screws - I can think of no logical reason why. It is instructive to note that apparently more tweets were sent to the Co-Op on Tuesday than to any other NOTW advertiser.

As for the loss in revenue, there is likely to be a short term downturn in readership. On the other hand, I wouldn't be surprised if there were a lot of people who went to the NOTW site to take a sneaky look (I must confess to this) only to be knocked back by the paywall. So online traffic is unlikely to pick up in the short term. Inevitably, it leaked out that Ford's media agency, Mindshare, had just transferred their ads into the Sun; brands which take that risk (or indeed any Murdoch title) should be poised to drop that hot potato at short notice depending on what unveils in the next few days. The situation continues to develop at volcanic pace.

One interesting side note from a social media perspective is the lack of propagation of opinion from Twitter through to Facebook. I follow a variety of people on Twitter across marketing, research, social media, political, musical and theatrical circles, as well as a handful of local people, and at times nearly half of my Twitter feed has been part of the #notw feed. On Facebook, however, where I'm friends with 400 people in a balanced cross-section of society (OK, I know, I would say that) there was almost no sign.

Most importantly of all, has this rage extended offline? As I type, a feature on Today asks residents of a London estate, who buy the NOTW, their opinions. Based on a convenience sample of course, and unscientific in every way, but all the people spoken to thought the behaviour was "disgusting" or similar, while several said they wouldn't buy the paper at the weekend (although one said she still would). They weren't asked about the brands, so advertisers will have to await the results of their questionnaires to determine the likely loss in brand equity.

Finally, a few articles to read: some fantastically savage vitriol and anti-Murdoch hostility from Peter Oborne, Matthew Norman and Damien Thompson. The coverage in Marketing Week, spearheaded by Lara O'Reilly, has also been excellent.

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