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Brands start preparing for unexpected criticism by Trump

business Updated: Dec 27, 2016 10:56 IST
Zach Schonbrun
Zach Schonbrun
The New York Times
Donald Trump

As the inauguration nears, Trump has shown no signs of curbing his willingness to criticise brands that draw his ire, as Boeing, Vanity Fair and Lockheed Martin have realised in recent weeks.(AP)

H&R Block’s new advertising campaign is one of the more ambitious in the company’s 62-year history. It hired the actor Jon Hamm for his first on-camera spokesman role, a significant coup. And the company ditched its “Refund Season” slogan in favour of a more aggressive pitch: “Get your taxes won.”

The ads obviously target Intuit’s do-it-yourself Turbo Tax. More subtle is how much the campaign was really influenced by critical words from one heavy-hitting personality: President-elect Donald Trump.

It was August 2015, still the early days of the presidential campaign, when Trump first mentioned that he hoped to “put H&R Block out of business” with his plan for a simplified tax code.

Sixteen months later, the leading tax preparer is still feeling the effects.

“We got kicked around a little bit last year,” Kathy Collins, chief marketing and strategy officer, said. “We realised this was the time to do this.”

As the inauguration nears, Trump has shown no signs of curbing his willingness to criticise brands that draw his ire, as Boeing, Vanity Fair and Lockheed Martin have realised in recent weeks. The spontaneity of his denunciations — and the speed at which his words travel, particularly on Twitter — has created a sense of unease among marketing executives, who now must be prepared in case Trump’s insults fly in their direction.

It is prompting some brands to pre-emptively draft informal contingency plans, and others, like H&R Block, to spend money shoring up their reputation. But one thing that industry analysts and crisis management experts seem to agree on: There is nothing in the handbook that instructs executives on how to handle an overnight Twitter controversy created by the President-elect.

“These are very much uncharted waters for companies,” Tim Calkins, professor of marketing at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, said. “Rarely have we been quite so polarised, and rarely have we had a president who is so quick to call out an attack on perceived threats.”

This puts companies — and the executives assigned to handle corporate imaging — in a delicate position. It is hardly advisable, Calkins said, for a company to challenge the authority of an incoming administration, whether on social media or in a formal ad campaign. But being conciliatory or supportive of a divisive figure like Trump can have negative consequences as well. Calkins said he thought companies were best served by staying as quiet as possible.

But what if your company is criticised? Scott Farrell, an expert in crisis management and the president of Golin Corporate Communications, said there was no formulaic response.

“The only thing that applies, no matter what the issue, is speed,” Farrell said. “Slow kills companies fast in a Twitter conversation.”

Some companies should even expect confrontation, he said, especially if they are in an industry that touches one of what Farrell calls Trump’s “hot zones,” such as trade, immigration, health care or defence. He is advising clients to thoroughly assess every coming public announcement against what it might trigger.

“These guys should be wearing WWTD bracelets — What Would Trump Do?” Farrell said. “If you’re thinking of moving offshore, if you’re thinking of doing a layoff, if you’re thinking of even positive stuff, what would Trump do? Develop a playbook for those contingencies.”

Andrew D Gilman, who has consulted with companies like Johnson & Johnson, General Motors, and Pepsi during crises, is telling brands to prepare for Trump as they would for a natural disaster — an event that is highly unpredictable but poses a big risk if it happens. One contingency is to line up a third-party spokesperson who can help if the brand’s image is dinged.

That is essentially what H&R Block did in signing Hamm, the “Mad Men” star, who has had voice-over roles in ads for Mercedes-Benz and American Airlines but had yet to appear on-screen as a pitchman. He said in a telephone interview that he had been an H&R Block customer for years.

“The fit between H&R Block and myself seemed copacetic and natural,” Hamm said. “And the tone of the creative was clever and outside the box for something as humdrum as taxes.”

There is no mention of Trump in the first two 30-second ads featuring Hamm, and Bill Cobb, H&R Block’s chief executive, was hesitant to say Trump’s comments directly inspired the company’s new effort. But the message is that the tax code is complex.

“We’ve been around for 62 years,” Cobb said. “The tax code was pretty simple in 1955. Yet people have always come here for help.”

The forceful messaging is a sign of things to come from advertising agencies, said Allen Adamson, a brand strategy consultant.

“From conversations I’ve had, there is a clear sense that in the next administration, companies will have to get their story out much more aggressively and much more quickly than previously,” Adamson said.

Vanity Fair’s swift response after Trump reacted to a negative review of a restaurant in one of his buildings by saying the magazine was “dead” could be an example for others to follow, Farrell said. Its message — including banner ads on its website calling itself “The Magazine Donald Trump Doesn’t Want You to Read” and asking for subscriptions — captured the magazine’s voice and identity. More than 40,000 people signed up for new subscriptions.

“Vanity Fair played that perfectly,” Farrell said. “This was ‘the magazine that Trump doesn’t want you to read.’ I think their response was consistent with the brand’s DNA.”

And while Boeing’s shares took a hit after Trump’s December 6 post on Twitter that he wanted to cancel the order for a new Air Force One, they began to rebound after the company had time to release statements.

Still, marketing executives took it as a lesson: Be ready.

“If you’re a CMO, you need to put another filter on your plans,” Gilman said. “Normally you’d never have to worry about a President singling out your company before. Now you do.” NYT