Identity Failure: When Brands Get Communication Wrong

by | Sep 7, 2021 | Brand Experience, Customer Experience

One doesn’t have to look far to find organisations who have fumbled on communicating the values of their corporate identities over the past decade or so. As brands try to cater to the social awareness of more connected, informed, and demanding audiences, more and more have discovered that lacking a robust corporate identity, and the internal mechanisms and processes to execute on it, can mean the difference between successful communication and the unwitting incitement of riots.

For public-facing companies, especially in services and retail, all news is not necessarily good news. And the modern nightmare scenario is treading on the customer’s sensibilities, and attracting broad attention for all the wrong reasons.

This has become an easy trap to trip, and never more so than when an organisation or brand’s identity is either out of step with the times, or poorly communicated across stakeholders.

In either case, if the error is not caught internally, it runs the risk of being picked up by the public. And the public will be far less forgiving than any internal system of correction.

H & M T-shirt Fiasco

In 2018, you might recall fashion retailer H&M releasing this hoodie for sale through its online store:

H&M's campaign that was deemed racially prejudiced. Poor communication of social constructs misaligned with your brand cause corporate identity failure

The backlash was global, many an unpleasant news article was written about the company’s insensitivity, and H & M became the subject of international anti-racist scrutiny. Here in South Africa, stores were protested and looted.

Back in Stockholm though, the reality was that the Swedish-based company was most likely blindsided by its country’s historical lack of diversity. As homogeneous as they are, the Swedes’ cultural history simply didn’t appreciate how the hoodie’s caption might be received by different international audiences.

But, when an organisation employs an appropriate corporate identity, communicated at every level of operation, mistakes like this can be filtered out before they ever see the light of day. Better market research of international consumers, with an eye toward inclusivity, or better empowerment of individual staff members to make decisions could both have led to this being flagged as a problem before it became a problem. Instead, it’s become a mark on the identity of a brand that was otherwise not a household name.

Woolworths’ Valentine’s Blunder

Woolworths is another retailer whose corporate identity failed to adjust to the times, finding them caught in the crossfire of a gender war that they didn’t even seem to know was going on at the time.

In 2019, they launched a Valentine’s advertising campaign that would have come across as quirky or cute had it been launched 5-10 years earlier.

Woolies gender stereotyping valentine campaign. Poor communication of social constructs misaligned with your brand cause corporate identity failure

As it was though, the messaging’s reliance on gender stereotypes to communicate romance didn’t mix very well with the contemporary feminism-influenced consumer, and the backlash was almost immediate. Social media was rife with criticism and complaints, newspapers quickly picked up the story, and Woolworths was forced to cancel the campaign.

Brand expert, Jeremy Sampson commented on it being an example of putting the brand’s identity second to the tactical importance of doing something, anything for Valentine’s Day. Ultimately, treating their own identity so poorly led to them doing nothing for Valentine’s Day, except apologising.

John Cena’s Political Misstep

The Fast & Furious franchise is an international blockbuster success, despite being on its ninth instalment. And this is largely due to its enormous popularity in the billion-plus nation of China.

That’s why, when John Cena – who recently joined the franchise’s line-up – made a comment that included a reference to Taiwan as a country, he quickly issued a video apology to the people of China.

While the recent F9 movie has still gone on to do well in the Chinese market, having to issue the apology put John Cena in a conflicted position between multiple of his personal brand’s stakeholders.

His employers at the World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) were reportedly unhappy with the issuance of an apology insisted upon by his employers at Universal Pictures because it did not take into account the state of his brand within the purview of their own. Meanwhile, his Chinese fans took offence and largely rejected the apology, and his American fans felt betrayed by it.

The truth is that John Cena lost control of the brand experience by failing to appreciate the needs of his various stakeholders. The John Cena brand is not a political brand, but he made it one through an off-handed comment that appreciation of context would have kept him from making.

Create And Secure A Robust Corporate Identity

Whether you’re crafting a corporate identity or protecting one, it is of utmost importance that your identity understands the market, and that you and your employees embrace that identity. It should have depth, values, and a culture that aligns with the market – where they overlap. And, as some brands have had to learn the hard way, sometimes that corporate identity should inform in which areas a brand should keep its opinion to itself.

Ensure that your brand and corporate identity are aligned with the market’s needs through in-depth market research and the application of intensive customer, user, and brand experience expertise. Contact Interact RDT today!


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