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Overestimating Backlashes

It’s tough for brands out there in cyberspace, where every move, every minute, seems vulnerable to catastrophic social media backlash. You spend millions of dollars on an ad campaign that seeks to tap into the current mood of political protest like Pepsi, or the timeless idea of purity like Nivea, or that jovially shows trampolining foxes like John Lewis, only to find everyone, including your target market, hates, hates, hates it.

Frankly, some brands really do deserve a Twitter-slap for having a tin ear when it comes to their customers' sensibilities, or even trashing the competition. But other criticisms seem so petty, or even originally meant as satire, you wonder if we’re paying too much attention to a handful of capricious millennial Instagrammers or click-hungry mommy bloggers.

It seems backlash has a minimal lasting effect on the bottom line, as the real scandals are quickly forgotten along with the trivial ones. VW saw its stock price tumble after it admitted to deliberately tricking its customers, and yet only 18 months later, it lodged Q1 2017 profits of nearly $950 million, while Samsung somehow managed to recover from the fact that its phones literally exploded. The playbook for those weathering a stormy backlash traditionally involves staying calm and responding with speed and humility. But, nowadays, there are so many outbursts of consumer dismay, maybe all you need to do is wait until a competitor says, “hold my beer.”

Do you dilute your message to appeal to everyone, or get comfortable upsetting some people, like JK Rowling? Or do you just pull your ad like Pepsi and McDonalds did, and wait for the storm to (quickly) subside? How do you know when to brush off a social media backlash, and when to do some brand soul searching?


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