Escaping brand vilification in an engaged and outraged world
Australians are known for their adoration of beer, so you would think that local beer brands would be able to do no wrong.
But in early March of this year, South Australian brewery Coopers, the largest Australian-owned brewer in the nation, found itself facing immense public backlash.
The PR disaster, which has already been described as one of the biggest marketing blunders of 2017, was ignited by a video involving two Liberal Party MPs, a few beers and someone from the Bible Society. For some reason, they thought it was a good idea to get Coopers mixed up in the issue of whether or not gays in Australia should be allowed to marry. Oh, were they wrong.
The video was shot at Canberra's Parliament House. In it, Liberal MP Tim Wilson, who is undecided on the issue, and Liberal MP Andrew Hastie, a Christian conservative who opposes it, debate marriage equality while drinking some nice cold Coopers Premium Light.
Titled Keeping it Light, the video was originally intended as part of a joint campaign between Coopers and the Bible Society of Australia, a longtime donor to the brewery. Since 2017 marked the 200th year of the Bible Society, Coopers decided to release 10,000 commemorative cases of beer, complete with printed Bible verses. At the end of the video, Wilson and Hastie agree to disagree, noting that the debate was "civil" and encouraging other Australians to "keep it light" when discussing presumably heavy topics.
Within minutes of the video's release, the public backlash began. People all across the country revolted against Coopers' politically motivated sponsoring of a religious organisation and implicit opposition to marriage equality.
As is the norm these days, social media became the foci for the people's wrath. Facebook users swarmed the Coopers Brewery page, posting negative comments and dragging its review rating down to 1.1/5 stars. On Twitter, the hashtag #BoycottCoopers trended nationally as drinkers nationwide vowed never to drink Coopers beer again. Shortly after that, bars in both Melbourne and Sydney posting signs and announcing that they would no longer be stocking Cooper beer. Things escalate quickly in 2017.
The Keeping it Light fiasco is an example of brand vilification, which is what happens when brands run afoul of the general public, and, more importantly for them, their customers. Being bigger doesn't exempt brands from vilification, if anything, it makes them easier targets and exacerbates the problem.
The reasons for brand vilification are varied but almost always centre around some form of injustice. For example, two decades ago, Nike was accused of unfair labour practices - injustice towards workers. In 2015, Volkswagon became embroiled in the emissions scandal - injustice towards the environment. And earlier this year, United Airlines forcibly removed a passenger from one of their airplanes - injustice towards that passenger. You get the idea.
The increased vilification of brands, politicians, celebrities and certain behaviours have led to the creation of what's known as "outrage culture", which is the practice of getting angry about things or creating content with the explicit purpose of inciting rage. Outrage culture has always existed, but in social media, it has found its true conduit because anger drives people to action and is inherently shareable. Researchers at the University of China confirmed this by studying emoticons in millions of messages posted on China's Sina Weibo, a popular Twitter-like microblogging platform. They found that rage-inducing posts spread the fastest, followed by ones that provoked joy, sadness and disgust.
Brands take vilification very seriously because it can have disastrous effects on the bottom line. As noted by our own Steve Nutall, following the VW emissions scandal the market value of the company fell around 40% (AU$10 billion). On top of that, ACA Research polled 1,000 Australians and found that almost a third (30%) of those who were considering buying a VW had become rejecters of the brand.
So how can brands deal with vilification? One solution is for them to engage in "empathy mapping", which is essentially the process of getting inside customers' heads and figuring out how they feel. From there, brands can gain a better understanding of the problem and how to fix it.
In a presentation that Fifth Quadrant recently prepared for Microsoft, we delved into how empathy mapping works in more detail. Empathy mapping starts with the construction of "personas", which are visual and written depictions of customers. Personas help brands to understand customers' needs and pain points, customer groupings and provide a 'human face' that allows CX designers to put themselves in their customers' shoes.
Once personas have been established the mapping begins. CX designers can take each persona and note down that person's needs and expectations. Following this, what the persona hears, feels, does, says, sees and thinks can be mapped out. At the end of the session, team members can exchange insights they have learned about their customers, answering questions about customer pain points or why particular personas are vilifying a brand and how the situation can be rectified.
It is unclear whether or not Coopers used empathy mapping to resolve their little PR nightmare. Judging by the way in which the situation was handled, they didn’t.
In total, Coopers released three statements on the matter, each one seemingly contradicting the last. In the first statement, Coopers continued to back the video, saying that it was a "light-hearted but balanced debate about an important topic within Australia" and that Coopers wasn't "trying to push religious messages."
In the second, Coopers added that it had not given permission for its Premium Light Beer to feature in the video and claimed that it did not wish to "change the beliefs" of the community.
When neither of those statements seemed to help, Coopers upped the ante and released a video message in which Director of Finance and Corporate Affairs Melanie Cooper and Managing Director Tim Cooper gave a full mea culpa. PR-wise it was third time lucky for Coopers, with Melanie and Tim openly supporting marriage equality, apologising for any offence caused and flatly stating that Keeping it Light had conflicted with the brewery's "core values." To top it all off, Coopers cancelled the release of the commemorative Bible Society cans and joined Australian Marriage Equality, an advocacy group that supports the cause. This is precisely what should have happened in the first place.
Industry analysts told The Guardian that they doubted Coopers would suffer lasting damage but pointed out that the Keeping it Light debacle shows how easy it is for customers to ditch a brand they see as clashing with their values. The turmoil is over but, as of now, the hangover is still being felt. The review rating on the Facebook Coopers Brewery page has crawled back up to an average of 1.8/5 and talk of a boycott has died down. But could Coopers have saved themselves a nasty headache with the use of empathy mapping?