Eulogising or Exploiting? Reactive Marketing Needs to be Careful

With the growth of digital media, brands can now permeate all strands of modern life and communication. This multi-channel infiltration means that the relationship individuals have with advertising and marketing can be even trickier to negotiate than ever before.

Social media marketing is particularly on a knife-edge – because it is the arena in which brands are most desperate to penetrate.

The main tactics brands use? Trying to react as quickly as possible to any sort of news story or event. To try and carve out some attention on overcrowded news feeds and timelines filled with voices screaming to be heard.

A big problem with this is that people don’t always like to have marketing rammed down their throats. Especially with embarrassingly tenuous pretences trying to disguise the opportunism.

Evidently, it’s a difficult approach to master.

Read More: When Advert Placement Goes Horribly Wrong

A company might simply be trying to engage with the public by attempting to be relatable, human and caring. But if things are misjudged then the power of the internet to punish those brands is quite incredible.

When AT&T tweeted in honour of September 11th they were met with a huge barrage of criticism. I’m not a New Yorker and I’m not an American, but I’m not a heartless monster either. Yet I can’t see that the vicious online backlash was warranted. Their tweet (pictured) didn’t include a hard sell – or even a specific brand of phone or link to their site – instead it seems like an innocent tribute that unfortunately rubbed people the wrong way.

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However you view that 9/11 twitterstorm, it underlines how you have to be extremely careful with your reactive marketing, and never more so than when a tragedy or death is involved.

Naturally, Nelson Mandela’s recent passing was seen as a marketing opportunity for some. Companies once again bravely (or naively) straddled the line between reverence and abuse, homage and exploitation.

At one end of the spectrum, Apple were met by near-universal admiration and praise for their effort, chiefly because they didn’t use Mandela. They tastefully replaced their usual homepage with a large photograph of the great man. By using the South African’s image in their normal slot reserved for highlighting Apple products they made the gesture feel respectful, and not using it on social media to drive up site traffic helped their reputation further.

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On the other hand, the biggest Mandela-marketing cockup occurred when Hollywood blogger Nikki Finke (formerly of Deadline.com) took to Twitter to remember Mandela’s life and legacy. Only she went for an excruciatingly misplaced angle – combining her RIP message with the shameful promotion of an upcoming biopic about the political leader.

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It may be difficult for brands and industry professionals to negotiate moments of global mourning, but even a child could see Finke’s tweet was awful. In a very trendy and heartening way of retaliation for her insensitivity, Finke’s blunder was immortalised with the #FinkObits hashtag, mimicking her words with similarly stupid eulogies:

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(Tweets courtesy of Mediaite)

Whatever the subject matter – even when firms don’t make a monumental gaff – the likelihood of being considered insensitive is high. Engaging with the public by sharing in newsworthy moments, either commiserating or celebrating, is a dangerous line to tread. When it’s done right your brand could see an unbeatable boost in its image. Conversely, when it’s done badly… the repercussions can be monumentally damaging.

It speaks volumes that there’s a Top 5 Worst Brand Twitter Screwups of 2013 list. The mistakes come in all shapes and sizes, but there’s a valuable lesson to be learnt that social media should be handled with care. Even if you think you’re in a rush to beat your rivals to an RIP post, consider your tone first. You certainly want to be more B&Q after the St. Jude Storm than these nine brands after Hurricane Sandy.