Slapped By The Hand That Feeds

on 10 | 29 | 2010

Posted by Kevin Buckby

Here’s a question that was pondered recently: What does the venerable Gap brand have in common with the counter-culture graffiti artist Banksy?  Not much, at first glance. The first is a safe destination for consumers inclined towards the conservative, while the other is a renegade iconoclast who made his name (pseudonym?) adorning street corners with satirical artwork decrying the darker sides of capitalism. Last week, however, both were at the center of much hand-wringing and anguish as their respective projects fell victim to the forces of social media.

For those happy souls who on occasion are able to disconnect from the zeitgeist, the story is this: Gap, seeking to assert its zesty and hip pretentions, chose to do so with a logo overhaul. Gone was the tired serif font set against the dull blue rectangle, and in its place came hip Helvetica, emblazoned on a much diminished, but brighter blue square. Progress, but not so as you’d notice. The backlash was intense and vociferous, expressed in the established order of these customer-led revolts: trending themes on Twitter, anti-fan pages established on Facebook, blog posts brimming with recrimination. What, in the dim distant days of 2005, might have been a stern letter to the editor of the New York Times, is now a cacophony of disapproval from disenchanted (ex-)customers. Still, nice to know they care.

Meanwhile, Banksy (in a move too post-modern and ironic for this mortal to fully grasp), was no doubt paid handsomely by Fox to express his disdain for capitalism by producing a subversive title sequence for The Simpsons. Prior to its airing on the Fox Network the clip was leaked and found its way onto the internet. Cue efforts from Fox to remove the offending sequence from YouTube (which it doesn’t partly own) and the myriad of blogs linking to it, and instead encourage its dissemination on HULU (which it does partly own). And as this lumbering giant made all the wrong moves, again the Twitter/blogosphere was aghast at the absence of a coherent response to a clip designed for virality going, well, viral.

So, what have we learned, other than snickering at brands floundering in the social milieu never gets old? How is it that consumer brands and media companies can continue to repeat the same mistakes, and what lessons can be extracted? In my conversations with CEOs and VCs, when the topic turns to marketing, the question of a social media strategy is quick to follow.

The importance of engaging with a community is clearly understood, but there is no question that we are still in the eye of the tornado and when the dust settles marketing will never be the same again. Unidirectional control of the message has gone the same way as back-combed hair and credit default swaps, but while those aberrations may one day make a comeback, the era of brands dictating to consumers has been irrevocably consigned to the history books. At this watershed moment, companies need marketing leadership that doesn’t need to consciously remind itself of this fact, but instead instinctively sees the world this way. In the CMO candidates I meet, I’m encouraged not by ideas about a social marketing strategy, but rather a marketing strategy that is at its core, social.