Brand backlash: Are 2023’s epic marketing fails part of a bigger problem?

Brand backlash: Are 2023’s epic marketing fails part of a bigger problem?

Purpose-driven marketing came under fire in 2023, with controversies roiling high-profile brands for months on end. The outcry, which extended beyond online kerfuffles to actually dent sales and revenue, has sent a chilling effect across an industry already contending with economic constraints. While the case for purpose remains strong, with plenty of research touting the potential benefits to the bottom line, these false steps may be a symptom of a larger underlying problem related to weak brand-building.

CMOs under growing pressure to tie their work to short-term results have spun too far toward performance media, experts said, making their brands’ positioning less defined and resilient against misfires. At the same time, advertisers and agencies alike are contending with the existential threat posed by the rise of generative artificial intelligence, which could make the lack of distinct brand identities more of a liability. Marketers have spent much of 2023 wondering whether their jobs are imperiled by automation, but purpose carries a degree of complexity and nuance that could still require the human touch to pull off.

“The importance of purpose-led marketing has probably never been greater,” said Margot Acton, a managing partner specializing in brand strategy at Kantar. “Algorithms are finding people. If you’re not a brand that snaps to my mind as important and meaningfully different in ways that I care about, then you’re actually going to be in trouble.” 

As the U.S. heads into another contentious election cycle and inflation is slow to cool, brand-building will be tested by a walking-on-eggshells environment, with purpose one of the most vulnerable tactics amid crusades against “wokeness.” Purpose has flexible definitions but is generally understood as the values a brand stands for beyond making money, such as protecting the environment or diversity, equity and inclusion.

More of the hard work for those causes may happen behind the scenes instead of manifesting in buzzword-heavy ad campaigns, speaking to how purpose needs to be a function that touches all aspects of the C-suite, not just the CMO. The close of 2023 could also serve as a point of reflection for marketers who eagerly jumped on the purpose bandwagon without a readiness to commit to a cause for the long haul, alienating consumers on several fronts.   

“Some of the basic tenets and premises got forgotten,” said Rosemarie Ryan, co-founder and CEO at Co:Collective, a strategy consultancy focused on helping businesses implement purpose. “There’s been some damage that’s been done.” 

A perfect storm

A confluence of factors tripped up purpose-led marketing initiatives and ultimately led to weaker brand-building output this year. The economy remains mired in uncertainty, making marketers more beholden to quarterly performance measures. Backing up work that gets criticized is a tall ask for CMOs who may fear their jobs are at risk on the off chance that a single campaign element becomes a hot-button national discussion.

“When you can say kiss my ass, you can say kiss my ass,” said Brandon Rochon, head of creative at independent ad agency Hothouse. “Right now, you can’t.”

Underpinning the unease are heightened political divisions, which rarely cooled from the last two election cycles and are again running high heading into 2024. Online safeguards and civility feel in crisis in a fragile moment. X, formerly known as Twitter, has reportedly seen an uptick in hate speech under loosened moderation rules mandated by Elon Musk. Musk himself has been under fire since acquiring the platform last year, most recently for expressing support for antisemitic conspiracy theories. 

“When things blow up, the data gets buried. We look at the immediate reaction and not the longer-term implications.”

Rosemarie Ryan

Co-Founder and CEO, Co:Collective

But the toxicity is hardly localized to X and disinformation continues to spread across social media, amplified by rising concerns around AI and deepfakes. Meanwhile, premium publishers have struggled, if not outright shuttered, in a weakened ad market. Marketers have tried to keep their campaigns away from contentious topics, including abortion and climate change, under the guise of brand safety but undercut authentic news and analysis in the process. 

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