Like a bad boyfriend, brands lie and cheat. There’s no shortage of examples, including Volkswagen most recently, but also Amazon, Apple and Google, among others. And, like an insecure girlfriend, if consumers love a given brand enough, they are more than willing to forgive – after perhaps a period of cooled intimacy.
Branding experts almost universally agree Dieselgate won’t do any long-term damage to Volkswagen’s reputation, provided it goes through the appropriate motions and demonstrates contrition while embracing a bold new era and reminding its consumers why they loved the brand in the first place.
It has all the trappings of a hit pop song. Taylor Swift, are you listening?
So, in that spirit, here are 10 songs that illustrate further nuances of the modern brand-consumer relationship.
1. Destiny’s Child’s “Say My Name”
It’s only getting easier to catch – and out – liars.
And consumers do.
In fact, Anthony Pensabene, digital marketing associate at SEO firm Evolving SEO, said it’s growing more difficult for brands to maintain good reputations due to the barrage of available social signals.
“If a brand delivers on its sales promise, that’s expected. There’s no story there,” he said. “But if a brand wrongs the consumer or generates a cause for negative news, the sharks smell blood in the water. I don’t think there’s been a shift in that truth, yet, today, it’s way easier to spread scandalous news in real time and compound it with social media commenters.”
Further, Barak Kassar, partner at digital brand-building and communications firm Rassak, said screwing up is much more dangerous now and blowback is much harder to control because every consumer has a voice on social media.
“Whereas brands needed to be good at advertising, PR, and product in the past, now they need to be good at advertising, PR, product, and the intricacies of communicating and participating on the social stage,” he said. “I’m not sure it’s about [history] as much as it’s about meaning of the brand – and of course time can increase meaning.”
2. Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive”
Standards are changing and consumer expectations are shifting.
In fact, Rebecca Brooks, founder of market research firm Alter Agents, noted there is a shift in which brands are held more accountable for their actions than in the past.
“Historically, we have had a certain comfort level with corporations being a bit ‘evil.’ Erin-Brokovich-style activism first brought this to our attention, but there was still this idea that those poor people were affected, but it doesn’t affect me,” she said. “Now, people are much more likely to punish a corporation for bad behavior even if they weren’t directly impacted. You see pressure on brands like McDonald’s to combat childhood obesity – even though you have the option of not eating there. Chipotle has carved out a huge niche in this space by being transparent, socially active and willing to take financial hits to keep their values – non-GMO pork sourcing problems took carnitas off the menu for many months.”
3. Aretha Franklin’s “Respect”
Today’s brands have to walk the line.
“Brands have to be able to deliver on their value proposition in a consistent manner that fits the expectations of the customer,” said Callum Beattie, partner at strategic creative agency Honest Agency. “If they don’t, I don’t think it matters if it’s Uber or Coke, they will lose customer loyalty and market share.”
4. TLC’s “No Scrubs”
The bad boy archetype is losing its luster.
Brooks said growing resentment about income inequality mean corporations with high sales and large profits are met with skepticism and frustration.
“Local, handcrafted, artisanal are all on the rise and will only get stronger as consumers look for opportunities to vote with their dollars on organizations that benefit and improve their communities,” Brooks said. “Competitors that have a strong moral position and transparent brand will outpace competitors.”
5. Spice Girls’ “Wannabe”
A brand is at the mercy of a consumer’s circle of friends.
“The power is now in the hands of the consumer,” Beattie said. “Brands can’t tell people what they should think anymore. Consumers talk to each other and compare notes at lightning speed.
“It’s very difficult for brands to keep up to consumer attitudes and behaviors,” he added. “The brands that are getting a lot of attention these days are brands that involve the consumer at the very core of the brand. Uber and Airbnb are perfect examples of this. The consumer is both customer and employee of these brands.”
6. Fleetwood Mac’s “Little Lies”
Even if some consumers disapprove of a brand’s actions, a fan who really loves it may be willingly blind to wrongdoing.
For his part, Pensabene points to the halo effect, which he said means consumers will generally stick with an overall impression regarding their feelings toward an entity.
“So if we assume that those purchasing VW vehicles had positive thoughts and an overall good impression to start, it would take more than the current scandal to altogether doom the brand,” he said. “I believe things may momentarily seem more dire because the majority of the public are not VW owners. It’s easier for them to think negatively about a brand they never thought positive about.”
7. Adele’s “Chasing Pavements”
Consumers care about integrity.
Further, crisis and reputation management consultant Eden Gillott Bowe said consumers’ patience and ability to forgive and forget have atrophied.
“We’re always looking for the best, fastest and most convenient,” Gillott Bowe said. “If something new disrupts the market, we’ll jump ship like lemmings. The same goes for if we’ve been wronged by a brand, assuming, of course, switching to an alternative doesn’t inconvenience us.”
Consumers are also growing accustomed, and perhaps jaded, to hearing apologies from those that have wronged them.
“If you’re caught doing something wrong, a heartfelt mea culpa may help, depending on how much goodwill you have in the bank and how inclined the public is to pounce,” Gillot Bowe said. “But it’s become overused with so many politicians, executives and celebrities caught in compromising situations. It’s lost much of its effectiveness. Unless you’ve amassed a cult-like following, if you’re a new, smaller brand you’re toast.”
8. Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time”
Relationship history matters, too.
“A fracture within a singular fan base means having to build a new base from scratch. And that can be an impossible job,” said John Lane, chief strategy officer at marketing firm Centerline Digital. “Think Saturn, from not long ago, whose base built on the ‘non-car buying fans’ but nothing more, lost momentum and could never recover.”
While longevity can certainly help a legacy brand weather a crisis, it doesn’t guarantee success, particularly if the brand reacts poorly to the crisis, said Wilde Agency President John Sisson, pointing to Enron.
9. The Police’s “Every Breath You Take”
The longer the relationship, the harder it is to sever.
“Older, established brands are ‘grandfathered’ in as far as general acceptance and are more resilient to a scandal,” Pensabene said.
10. Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You”
Brands can weather virtually any scandal if they are truly loved by consumers.
Brooks noted other brands like Ford, Cadillac and Toyota have also experienced declines in consumer trust due to poor product and/or management, but they’ve all bounced back.
“Each brand did this by leveraging the love of their core fans and harking back to the core elements that launched them,” she said.
Brand consultant Daryl Weber points to Tylenol, which was able to rebound after numerous safety issues and recalls as well.
“Though VW is a bit worse because it was an intentional move on their part, and because this flies in the face of the brand’s lovable, good-natured feel, I still think they have the brand history and strength to eventually overcome this,” Weber said. “They have built a level of consumer love that is very, very hard to break down.”
Kassar points to disruptor brands like Airbnb and Uber, which have shorter histories, but have also amassed a great deal of meaning in a short amount of time.
“And it’s partly attitude. They’re out to create very meaningful brands,” Kassar said. “They’re not 100 percent loved by any stretch. They are, in some ways, scandal brands…but those who love the brands love the brands.”