Authentic to the occasion: communication lessons during times of crisis

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When everything is going well, it’s easy to know what you say. People look to you to validate what they already believe: the communicative equivalents of high fives and fists in the air. Most brands communicate clearest when the sky is blue. Haze distorts and creates uncertainty. What may be clear and unambiguous one day may be fraught and problematic the next. The discourses intrinsic to language are always changing, a shifting maze of meaning and interpretation that requires careful navigation and analysis.

A crisis is a form of darkness; it makes what we say opaquer and more open to misinterpretation. It also demands that we know with precision that we intend to say before we say it. It’s no longer a game of memes and short-fire messaging. What does a message celebrating its Friday – the bread-and-butter weekly message of too many brands – really communicate? In normal times, it communicates little. It’s a reminder to your audience that you’re there, and that you’re able to relate to their fondness for the week’s end. During crises, however – and we need no better example than a global pandemic – it risks the perception of shallowness, facetiousness and of being apart, separate from the realities of those affected.

In a world as connected as ours, there’s no sand left to bury a head. If something’s happening in the world, it’s also happening to your audience – which means it’s also happening to you. Still, however, there’s a time and a place, and a precise tone to affect.


To speak or not to speak

Everybody is wary of artifice. Brands that use complex issues for the sake of temporary market relevance are frequently punished for doing so. The appearance of wokeness to garner public kudos is a transparent exercise. What you say must always be in keeping with who you are, which is partly dictated by the products or services sold and which – if any – are able to contribute meaningfully to the conversation at hand. To have an authentic voice means understanding not only what to say, but whether to say anything at all.

Maintaining brand authenticity

We’ve spoken a lot about authenticity. It is when the stakes are high that the authentic voice is challenged. To maintain a brand’s authenticity, even at the expense of time-sensitive marketing, requires discipline and foresight. It requires an absolute idea of what that voice is, and when it’s relevant to use it to contribute to broader conversations. In May of this year, in the wake of the killing of George Floyd, Ben & Jerry’s chose to step in (and up). The brand launched a global campaign to ‘dismantle white supremacy’. A decade ago, the notion that an ice cream manufacturer would be the one speaking up and releasing bold, edifying statements on social media would be, in a word, unusual. But we’ve seen the role of brands radically change, from ancillary parts of our lives to main players: key components in the assemblage of our identity.

Naturally, there was some ridicule – but also wide support. It’s a bold move, and it worked for two reasons. First, the length and substance of the statement meant that it wasn’t just saying something – a short message to insist on its part in the conversation – but saying something meaningful. And second: this wasn’t the first time Ben & Jerry’s has spoken out against racial inequality, having done so years before. It has successfully established itself as a bold brand, willing to speak out if the occasion calls for it. In other words, the campaign worked because speaking out is part of the brand’s authentic voice. The campaign furthered the brand’s identity, rather than compromising it for short-term relevance.


The right time to speak

Personality takes years to develop. It cannot be insisted upon – and if a sudden pivot appears to be opportunistic, it’ll be called out. Such is the case with Gillette’s now infamous ‘The Best Men Can Be’ campaign, a play on its original ‘The Best A Man Can Get’ tagline. Identifying the issues of toxicity is a worthwhile goal, but Gillette has historically reinforced what it sought to chastise. There was nothing wrong with the content, but the words read as hollow intentions, inauthentic notes deprived of meaning. Rather than contributing to the conversation, it appeared to use the conversation to reposition its product. Audiences do not trust inauthenticity. The pivot proved too sharp and too banal to circumvent suspicion.

Some brands have a role to play in furthering change, speaking out for those who struggle to be heard. Many brands, however, do not. Their role is to provide comfort against the angst and anxieties of the world – and be a consistent, stabilising presence for audiences.

Part of the challenge is that organisations are more accustomed to communicating with their employees than they are with their audiences. Yet organisation-employee communications are far less complex than those between an organisation and its customers. The latter is fraught by minefields and invisible lines, an endless to-and-fro of too detached and too familiar. Employees also don’t tend to openly dispute what they’re being told, let alone mock it. Audiences, however, do – and do so with gusto. They have little incentive to stay silent, and either recognise a brand for its authenticity or ridicule it for its opportunism.

Better to retain the power to speak out when the time calls for it than speak out frequently to deaf ears. Not every brand can be a rabble-rouser, or be known for its boldness. Some are simply known for what they provide and providing it unwaveringly and reliably through good times and bad.

Audiences are human. Right now, we’re all facing the same crisis, and our needs are shared. We need stability, and we require authenticity. Crises provide valuable lessons in restraint. Right now, for many brands, it is better to say less; to be there, be familiar and relatable, but not insist or go beyond what your audience requires. It is during crises that brands are defined. Not for what they sell necessarily – though that’s certainly important – but for how they act. A brand is a presence; done right, it becomes a symbol of the familiar and comforting. Restraint – or boldness – demonstrated today may bolster the brand in the future. A temporary decrease in sales is only the temporary price paid for authenticity.

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