How Brands Win Big and Avoid Scoring ‘Own Goals’ During The Pandemic



In a soccer match, one of the great magic or tragic moments (depending which team you are supporting) is the “own goal.” It usually involves a desperate defender who, with the best of intentions, achieves the very outcome they are employed to prevent, a goal for the opposition.

Enjoy these spectacular examples of the genre. 

Which brings us to the theme of this week’s blog; how do brands succeed during the pandemic and what we can learn from the brands who created a disaster by scoring their “own goal”?

First, let us acknowledge what a difficult time this is for marketing and celebrate brands that are winning during the public health crisis.

A new study published in mid-October looks at how the world’s top 100 brands are faring in the COVID-19 era. It is the 10th year of the study by the marketing agency MBLM, so it offers interesting points of comparison with the pre-coronavirus days. Based on interviews with 3,000 consumers, the study examines brand success through the lens of ‘brand intimacy’, the essential emotional connection built by successful brands with their core users, an idea which appears to be strengthening during the pandemic.

Apple is the brand with the highest score, followed in order by Amazon, Google, Walmart and YouTube.

Two new entrants to the list are Zoom and Purell. Both get credit for their responses to COVID. Another brand with an increase in its emotional connection is Netflix. One of the overall top five, Amazon, also enjoyed a large upswing and kudos for its efforts over recent months.

What can we learn from these brands which have been successful at forging an emotional bond with consumers? 

They are all invested in marketing designed to foster relationships with users and to build trust, engagement and longevity. The report points out that consumers are willing to pay a premium for brands with these attributes.

‘Trust’ is the big word to pull out of that list. Consumers have a higher degree of trust that these brands understand them, their values and the things that matter most.

Which brings us back to the spectacular self-defeating “own goals”.

Both our examples from October feature brands firmly treading on the values of the very consumers with whom they were trying to build a connection.

  • Kraft Mac & Cheese: This perennial favorite quick and tasty dinner of hard pressed parents, decided to celebrate National Noodle Day (yes, that is a real thing) on October 6th by inviting users to send in their ‘’noods” to friends and family – which, you will understand, is a play on the word “nudes”. The sexualizing of Mac & Cheese did not go down well with parents. Hashtags appeared which included #BoycottKraft and hundreds of people signed a petition asking the brand to listen to the concerns. By October 12th, the original video, ads and any other mentions on Kraft’s social media had vanished. 
  • Figs Medical Apparel: Launching a ‘hot pink’ line of medical scrubs, fast-growing activewear manufacturer Figs published an Instagram video with a young woman in glasses reading a book with the title, ‘Medical Terminology for Dummies’. Just in case that did not make the point clearly enough, she was holding the book upside down. Hundreds of doctors, nurses and medical students, men and women, flooded social media to express their outrage at the negative stereotype of women medical professionals. Figs, a company founded by two women, removed the video and issued an apology. The adverse reaction continued as many people were unhappy with the phrasing of the apology! 

While the winning brands over the past few months, including  Zoom, Purell, Netflix and Amazon, have strengthened their emotional connection with consumers, both Kraft and Figs trampled all over the values and beliefs of their consumers, proving it is easy to get carried away with an ‘edgy’ creative idea and then disappear down the marketing rabbit hole in pursuit of that idea.

To avoid the negative outcomes that inevitably follow, someone in every room or virtual discussion where new marketing ideas are being planned must be there to get answers to two important questions before a campaign goes into execution.

  1. How does this idea support and connect with the needs and values of our core customers?
  2. Is there anything about this concept that will leave our core customers feeling betrayed and insulted?

Do that and you might just catch a PR catastrophe before the public does it for you.


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