That old saying “Those who can’t remember the past, are destined to repeat it” is an adage that should be treated as professional gospel in the marketing world.
Every year we’re regaled with stories of corporations making strategic decisions that might make sense on paper — especially from an accounting and operational perspective — but wind up proving to be remarkably tone deaf, utterly avoidable public relations disasters that put their brand at risk.
Yet they keep making the same mistakes.
Last year, we had the example of TD Bank fending off charges of improper sales practices by its front-line staff. The bank issued a standard boilerplate response that seemed more about mitigating legal risk than a contrite expression of regret and a promise to do better.
Or how about Sears Canada? Before the retail giant folded, it unceremoniously dismissed thousands of employees with little or no severance compensation, many of whom are now worried over the future of the company pension plan.
One of those let go was Peter Myers — older brother of Mike — who recruited his famous sibling for a 2014 Sears Canada TV commercial. The spot sought to reassure the public that Sears stores would remain open, warranties would be honoured and that thousands of jobs would be preserved because the brand was “not going anywhere.”
That was until Peter Myers, erstwhile spokesman, went somewhere — out the door. His termination created an unnecessary PR distraction during an already tumultuous period for the embattled company.
Currently, we have the Facebook privacy debacle in which data mining firm Cambridge Analytica allegedly leveraged the data of 50 million of the social media platform’s users to the benefit of the Trump campaign team during the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
That it took Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg about four days to publicly comment on the controversy is remarkable. We can’t be sure who made the decision to keep the boss under wraps for that long, but there’s a good chance the legal department was involved and decided that it was best to stay mum just a little while longer. Or maybe they just wanted to protect their share price.
Either way, the strategic decision to refrain from commenting likely had a greater negative impact on the Facebook brand than had the CEO offered a swift explanation of what went wrong.
The big issue here is one that plagues organizations from large, small and medium-size businesses: the marketing department is often the last one included in relevant business conversations. This is a mistake.
And that’s not only apparent in times of corporate crisis.
On many occasions, we’ve worked with companies who develop outstanding marketing campaigns that have nothing to do with their leaders’ or sales teams’ growth objectives — indeed, the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing. Money gets blown, executives wonder why Marketing seems to be a budgetary black hole and has a difficult time quantifying or delivering results.
At the same time, sales and business development reps continue pounding the pavement to hit their targets and become more disconnected from the people tasked with supporting their efforts.
The solution is simple: Make a greater effort to ensure your marketing people have a seat at the boardroom table.
They need to know about your company’s strategic direction and should even be involved in setting it. The same rule applies if you contract the services of third-party agencies. In fact, their outsider perspectives and insights can be invaluable in helping assess market trends and determine how best to market your products or services.
Alternatively, if your business is flailing or, worse, operations are winding down, marketers are the ones who can help craft messaging and manage relations with everyone from employees to customers. A good marketing-communications team can do wonders to help contain the damage when times get tough.
They can also pull the plug on marketing initiatives that are dated or no longer appropriate.
So, next time you endeavour to bring marketing into the conversation after important strategic decisions are formulated and a vision for the company is laid out in detail, take a step back and reconsider that approach. Save a seat at the boardroom table and ask your marketers to contribute ideas — while highlighting opportunities and challenges — from their professional perspective.
Following that simple step would have helped many companies avoid embarrassing marketing faux pas — or even saved them $100 billion. Just ask Mark Zuckerberg.
Dave Burnett is CEO of AOK Marketing, a Toronto-based firm that helps traditional offline businesses get discovered online.
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