Reading the room – when PR campaigns go wrong

Tom By Tom

When it comes to delivering a successful PR campaign, it should ideally change consumer perceptions on a topic, and generally improve how your brand in viewed. Increasing sales and awareness also won’t go amiss.

Unfortunately, things don’t always turn out that way. We’ve all seen the most recent campaign from Lush, an eye-opening example of how you don’t want things to go down. Lush is well known for its authoritative campaigns for ethical causes, but its most recent example was at odds with these brand values.

The company’s divisive campaign on undercover police officers certainly split opinion. Many said it was an issue that deserved more attention, whilst others vilified Lush for being anti-police. However, to the average consumer, this wasn’t what they expected. PR campaigns must stay true to brand values and what consumers expect from you. Yes, consumers want you to highlight issues and take a position on them, but it has to be relevant. You must be authentic as an authority on the topic.

My wife, a die-hard Lush fan and the reason our flat permanently smells like a Lush store (seriously, how do you get rid of that smell?), summed it up best when passing the store in Nottingham: “What do bath bombs and soap have to do with undercover coppers?”

Here are some other examples of brands not reading the room and getting things wrong.

Facebook VR: Nothing says we care like a video of a cartoon Mark Zuckerberg discussing Facebook’s latest virtual reality venture, set against the backdrop of a devastated Puerto Rico. This quote from the Telegraph sums out how poorly thought out it all was: "One of the things that's really magical about virtual reality is you can get the feeling that you're really in a place," Zuckerberg's avatar says in the video, as it bobs in front of scenes of devastation.

Google April fool joke: This one was funny at first. The Gmail Mic Drop saw Google add a button that sends a gif of a minion dressed as the queen dropping the microphone to sign off your email. Funny in the right context, but something that could, and was, hit accidentally. People lost their jobs sending back copy, caused upset when sending funeral arrangements and irritated customers when responding to complaints. Maybe think about UX next time, eh, Google?

Brewdog Beer for Women: I’m a Brewdog shareholder. I love the brand, so I was surprised to see Brewdog get this one so badly wrong. Taking aim at stupid brands like Bic that make pens for women (who, notoriously, cannot write with man pens), Brewdog thought it would be funny to take a satirical swipe at the gender pay gap. To address this serious, thought provoking societal issue, Brewdog created Pink IPA, a beer for women that was sold at a lower price to women compared to men. Unsurprisingly, this attempt at humour fell as flat as other beers during the CO2 shortage.

Is it so hard to get this right? Is it really that difficult to think about what your consumers expect from you as a brand? It feels like every week a poorly thought out campaign hits the headlines. But that’s not to say they’re all bad. When brands get it right, it’s amazing.

Take Paddy Power for example. At the World Cup this year, it is donating £10k to LGBT+ causes for every goal Russia scores at the World Cup, promising to donate a minimum of £50k in the case of 0-0. The campaign, titled ‘From Russia, with equal love’, takes swipe at Russia’s archaic and ignorant attitudes and laws towards the LGBT+ community.

Monzo has also taken steps to campaign around issues, giving people the option to block gambling transactions from their account to help self-exclude themselves from the habit. Hardly something you’d see a traditional bank doing.

The goal of any campaign is to come out looking good and highlighting an issue you can reasonably discuss and highlight as a brand. You don’t want to jar customer opinion. Before any brands commence PR campaigns, it’s important to be able to clarify and justify the message. That’s what the likes of Paddy Power and Monzo have got right.