How to Not Destroy Your Brand: A Guide for Companies Who Stay F*cking Up

Pepsi, Shea Moisture and now Dove all seem to need some pointers on how to not sh*t on its customers.

It seems like every damn day, another brand is stepping in shit and promptly placing its foot in its mouth. In the past year alone, we've seen brands both gargantuan and up-and-coming make mistakes that an advertising undergrad in 2017 would know better than to do: Pepsi's ad from April of this year featured the culturally oblivious Kendall Jenner, and minimized the point of protests, making them look like sunshine and rainbows; Shea Moisture, a natural hair products company, featured more white women in its April ad than women of color, and chose not to feature any women with the kinky-curly hair type that its base of day-one supporters largely has.

Did @Dove really think an ad where a black woman is depicted as dirty and a white woman as clean was NOT incredibly racist? #shooketh

And now we have Dove, a company that prides itself on empowering all women, which ran a deeply troubling ad campaign over the weekend. In the words of magical black girl and actress Danielle Brooks, of Orange Is the New Black fame: "Dove, you want me to believe that using your soap will turn my skin into that of a white woman? No—that can't be it. You want me to believe being black isn't clean? You want me to believe that black = dirt and white = purity and using your soap will make me clean? Got it. You're telling me my skin, the deep, rich melanin that I was born with and cannot change, is filthy. Got it."

An image we recently posted on Facebook missed the mark in representing women of color thoughtfully. We deeply regret the offense it caused.

And then Dove had the audacity to say they "missed the mark"—the exact same phrase Pepsi used post screw-up.

Listen: the old me would have told Dove to take their non-intersectional, whites-only face-ass feminism and go on somewhere. But the new me? She's committed to bettering this godforsaken country, which means teaching y'all How Not to Fuck Up Basic Branding 101. 

To get some extra help with this very-necessary task, I reached out to Amanda Spann, marketing expert, app founder, and owner of the website, which describes Spann's specific expertise better than I ever could: "I've decided to pool my 10 years of marketing experience, the 262,800+ hours I’ve spent being black and my Corporate Communications Masters from Georgetown towards actually being the black friend that so many advertisers claim to have, but no one has ever seen."

When we spoke on the phone, Spann elaborated a bit more. "I think, as a marketer, it is particularly frustrating to see other marketers or marketing departments make flubs that were preventable," she said. "And then, on top of being a marketer, being a black woman, it is particularly insulting that a brand who is trying to target or sell something to me didn't take the time to figure out who I am."

So how can these brands do better? Without further ado, let's dig into some essential rules for not fucking up the money.

Evaluate how and why the fuck-up happened

According to Amanda Spann, taking a step back and evaluating how the misstep happened is—you guessed it—step one. 

"You need to take a hard look at your organization and think about how it was possible for you to release a culturally insensitive campaign and let it slip through the cracks, or become an oversight amongst all of your marketing executives," Spann said. "Who gave the green light for this, and why did this happen? Why didn't they catch this?" 

Dove has been doing the absolute most in its mission to improve equality. But their naiveté in race relations and intersectionality shows. "Dove really prides themselves on being a champion of diversity, and they kind of remind me of that white liberal friend you have who is down with the brown but isn't necessarily culturally conscious," Spann said. "You really have to put cultural considerations into place, and the dynamics of how people live, how people work, how people move. And I think that's something that Dove really misses."

Spann continued: "Like, if I was to create a persona profile on a Dove customer, in particular—because I know Dove is so hell-bent on diversity—I would include in that persona that their customer is very conscious, they're very culturally diverse, they are very mindful of social issues, they are very in tune to racial discussions that are happening in this country and others. And if I know that about Dove consumers, why doesn't Dove know that about their consumers?" 

Hire a black person, or *gasp* several

Step two: look around. Do you see any black people in your immediate vicinity? Take a few steps to the next workspace—any black people there? Take a lap around the whole damn building, swing by the C-suite—anyone there? Could they realistically pull the plug on a questionable project or campaign if it somehow manages to make it to the very top of the approval chain?

"In a lot of cases, it's diversity in the boardroom," Spann explained. "But there is a silencing of, in particular, black and brown employees. They might voice their concern and get overshadowed, or they're shouted out, or they're drowned out, or they're minimized, they're marginalized, to be not that big of a deal."

According to Spann, these are the people who most need to be heard, when it comes to creating meaningful materials for a committed customer base. "If this is your consumer, and someone who knows your consumer is telling you to be mindful of this issue, then you need to take notice of that and think about how you can possibly do this differently."

Do your research on other brand fuck-ups

Or just, I don't know, pay attention to the news. The Shea Moisture and Pepsi screw-ups happened in the same damn month, Pepsi's coming a couple weeks before the Shea Moisture incident splattered across your timeline. "Pepsi came out and was just like, 'Oh, let's do a Coachella-style protest,'" Spann recapped. "And then right after that, Shea Moisture was like, 'Oh, nope—hold my beer. I got something for you.'" 

Not only is there plentiful information out there, but there are also all of the thinkpieces, hot takes, and social media reactions to these screw-ups. Between interns and executives and everyone in between, somebody has got to keep an eye out for possible pitfalls and common mistakes. Unless you really just wanna be another case study for what not to do.

Test the campaign on diverse audiences

This one is a gimme. If you're not doing this, do this. If you're a big ass company like Dove, you should absolutely be doing this. "They have the money, they have the resources and they have the time," Spann said. "It's something that, if you're a mom-and-pop organization, you put out something, you don't have the ability to conduct all types of market research, and you're still gonna be held accountable for it. But Dove has all of the means to make sure things like this don't happen, or at least happen at a minimum."

Because, let's keep it funky: there's zero chance any campaign ever will offend zero people. "The way of our world now, chances are almost everything you put out is going to offend somebody," Spann explained, "but there are ways of getting around it and reducing that risk considerably."

Bring on actual influencers

Not Kendall Jenner. OK, Pepsi?

To get specific, Spann recommended something called micro-influencers, defined by Forbes as "everyday consumers who have a significant social media following of anywhere between 1,000 and 100,000."

"It's not just fashion and beauty," Spann broke down. "There are people who are cultural influencers, as well. People who are political influencers, people from all different walks of life. And they really shape and mold a lot of the conversations people are having on the ground. I think a lot of times, we think about them only in a linear capacity, but we need to start bringing in these people, to leverage their opinions."

Fire the people who fucked up

This might feel like a knee-jerk reaction, but problems like this don't just appear out of nowhere. It's likely an institutional problem. For example, with Dove, they've had slip-ups like this before. 

I wrote a paper on this in 2nd year. With this Dove ad.That Pepsi commercial was dumb and tone deaf. These soap ads are just flat out racist
They been out here doing what they want...

If those people still have a job, they don't deserve it. Period.

Have a general awareness of racism and oppression

Well-intentioned brands like Dove, as earnest as they may be, "miss the mark" with their campaigns because of a general unawareness of the oppressive way this country unfortunately operates. That lack of awareness ultimately leads to the perpetuation of racist ideas and stereotypes, whether it's consciously done or not. "Small prejudices and discriminatory practices and culturally insensitive behaviors have been so normalized over the past 400 years that people aren't even cognizant of the fact that they're perpetuating them," Spann emphasized.

"The only way to tell is to actively be mindful of what's happening—that this could happen if you're not careful. And take steps like leaning on micro-influencers, conducting market research, conducting cultural research, hiring a diverse board, making sure that there are checks and balances in your marketing process and your approvals process so that things like this don't happen. And if you don't take those steps... they likely will happen."

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