As social media companies grapple with fake news and extremist content, are brands at risk of being tarnished by association?
You’re launching a new campaign, you want a targeted way of reaching a particular audience and you’ve got a fun quiz to engage people, so you run some Facebook ads. Job done.
But what if your quiz lands in someone’s feed next to a post about a bloody revolt against capitalism, or climate change denial, or far right conspiracy theories? Will that damage your brand?
Association is important
Brands take time to cultivate, are powerful tools in building consumer preference and are expensive to maintain. Once tarnished, they can be difficult to rebuild.
And they can be tarnished, or improved, from unexpected quarters because association is important.
Timberland, the outdoors lifestyle brand which continually uses images of mountains and forests in its marketing, was embraced by hip hop and became the go-to boot brand for hip hop’s mainly urban audience. A brand focused on the great outdoors, became urban by association.
Burberry, the high-end fashion brand, needed a real brand clean up when baseball caps made using its famous check became the headwear of choice among less affluent inner city youths. It took years and a lot of work to make it an elite brand again.
In the same way that brands pay millions to celebrities to build associations of glamour and success, they need to avoid negative associations.
We’ve seen similar on YouTube
YouTube was the first social channel to see this problem. Algorithmic media buying meant that brands could see their ads sit at the beginning of videos about all sorts of unsuitable content. When this came to light, it saw brands withdraw and vloggers reported significant drops in income.
The problem is less direct on Twitter or Facebook. Content posted by brands on these networks won’t be placed as the precursor to someone else’s content. A brand’s post will appear as an independent piece of a person’s feed. The association is less direct.
Clean up or clear out
Yet, there is some risk. Twitter can, at times, feel like a mob that’s looking for something to rail against. Do you really want to put your brand on a network where it feels like a small misstep could be massively damaging? And not a day goes by where someone loudly proclaims how they’re “no longer doing Facebook.”
Recent Pew Research Center data reported by the FT showed that in the US the top 10% of tweeters on average posted 138 tweets a month, the remaining 90% averaged just two posts a month. Twitter has a definite skew to a loud minority. If this concentration increases, that could spell real problems for the network because it’s not good news for brands. If Twitter goes from being the place that people go to for breaking news, to the place people avoid because it’s angry and chaotic, brands will avoid it too.
Similarly, for Facebook, if it becomes a place where extremists post regularly and your friends post less often, then the risk equation for brands changes dramatically. Facebook founder, Mark Zuckerberg, has talked a lot recently about rebalancing the newsfeed towards more content from friends but will the changes come quickly enough?
The associative damage from discrete posts might be minimal, but if a social network or social media as a whole are viewed as damaged, then there’s a legitimate conversation to be had about whether the risk to brands is worth the targeted access to potential customers. If social media networks don’t clean up their feeds, then they might find that as average users leave, brands go clear out with them.