George Clooney is very good at his job. And Howard Stern is very good at his. But their jobs are very, very different.
The movie business is about making big, polished pieces of culture that we sit back and admire, and then talk about with our friends. Talk radio is about reacting quickly to both the news and your audience, and is generally more authentic—less glamor, more spontaneity, and almost no money spent on production.
Advertising agencies are like the movie business: they’re rewarded for making something as perfect as it can be, with painstaking attention to detail. No one cares how long their work takes as long as it’s good enough. And money makes a big difference both in the agency’s quality, and in which media it’s featured. Clients always want cheaper and faster, but in advertising, details count. If you’re going to spend a lot of money on traditional advertising, the creativity has to be rock-solid.
Social media agencies, however, are like talk radio: they’re asked to put out a constant stream of content which, while not perfect, must be consistent. They also have to react in near real-time to what the audience says. While everybody watches Twitter to see what’s being said about them, nobody expects an ad agency to re-edit a commercial because of a negative Facebook comment. But social media agencies must react to and manage unhappy audience members (even if they’re wrong) in real-time. Authenticity is more powerful than technical perfection.
Both types of agency have radically different skill sets, and asking one organization to be good at both is a stretch. That would be akin to asking Clooney to sit in for Stern on the radio, or asking Stern to play the lead in Ocean’s Eleven. I’m sure Clooney would be charming on the radio—for the first day or two. Stern even starred in his own autobiographical movie. But that doesn’t mean that they should quit their day jobs.
The culture used to value Clooney’s skills much more than Stern’s. But the balance is starting to shift—take the recent brand crises for Abercrombie & Fitch and BPI as examples.
A&F is a lot more like Clooney than Stern. It’s beautifully creative, and it obviously took a long time to make the brand perfect. A&F’s management has created a great brand by standing for something. Sure, the brand might not be for you, or it may stand for something you dislike, but there’s absolutely no ambiguity about what it is and who it’s for. You don’t do that without being good at marketing—which is why it’s so surprising that they recently messed up so badly on social media.
The short of the story is: in 2007, A&F CEO Michael Jeffries gave an interview to Salon where he said that sex appeal is “almost everything,” adding that “that’s why we hire good-looking people in our stores…We don’t market to anyone other than that.” When Business Insider published a story highlighting that old article, the Twitterverse exploded in an orgy of back-patting against Jeffries’ ‘anti-fat branding.’ And it took Jeffries (and A&F) nearly twelve days to apologize about the controversy. By that time, the ship had sailed and the damage was done.
The same thing happened to BPI. We’re all in favor of lower-fat beef. And that’s what BPI made, but when it was nicknamed “pink slime,” everyone piled on, because really, who wants to be in favor of something called pink slime? BPI’s weakness is that, unlike A&F, they’re not cool – processing meat isn’t exactly a glamorous industry. But where they’re similar is that the moment that someone attacked the wholesomeness of their product, they should’ve fought back. Most people don’t know too much about how ground beef is made anyway, so if you make something that could be considered gross, you ought to have a plan in place to make sure you don’t let other people slander your brand.
But what should the brands have done instead?
- Paid attention. When Business Insider published their piece on A&F, A&F didn’t expect people to react so strongly. Neither did BPI, in their case. But you never know how the culture will react to news, and both companies should’ve been listening. BPI has more of an excuse because they’re not a ‘cool’ brand, but either way, both companies certainly should have know what was going on.
- Done something about it. A quick self-deprecatory tweet from Jeffries could’ve cut off the oxygen quickly. Something like “we’ve all said embarrassing things, and so did I – I made a poor choice of words and I’m sorry.” Similarly, BPI could’ve said something about the pink slime. Something—anything—would’ve been better than just sitting back. Instead, both brands let things gain momentum.
- Had a plan in place. A&F should know that its weak spot is that people resent it for being about the popular kids. And BPI should’ve known that its weakness is that people really don’t know much about how ground beef is produced. Now that everyone has a megaphone, it’s absolutely essential to know your brand’s weak points. Knowing them and keeping a close eye on them could’ve prevented both brands’ situations.
A&F was always in danger of being called a snob, jerk, or bully. And BPI was always in danger of someone discovering how ground beef was really produced, before they came out and said anything about it. But neither company ever did anything about it. And when your critics are better than you at social media, your critics get to define your brand.
A&F is a perfect example of a George Clooney brand—polished, beautiful, and great at one-way communications. BPI is less of a ‘beautiful’ brand, but they are polished, and they’re certainly a primarily one-way brand. Brands like that thrived in the 1990’s, when media was still one-way. But as our culture has changed, the 1990’s brand playbook is getting increasingly less effective.
So remember this: when your customers have their own little media platforms, you have to be able to talk back. And that means being a little bit of Clooney and a little bit of Stern. If you don’t do that, you run the risk of going the way of A&F or BPI. Don’t let it happen to you.