This week Subway announced a decision to "mutually suspend their relationship" with the sandwich chain's original spokesperson, as other national brands watched from the sidelines wondering what Plan B looks like if their own spokespeople turn out to be felons, frauds or fodder for public derision.
Given how quickly and decisively they responded to the news, neither Subway's brand image nor their store traffic should be seriously affected, but their dilemma is a cautionary tale for many brands that still lean heavily on the crutch of celebrity endorsement.
Many brands continue to spend millions of dollars on ad campaigns that rely on an individual human being, whether in the form of an actor playing a recurring character in a series of ads, or a faintly recognizable voice-over, or the all too familiar use of a celebrity spokesperson. Some of these campaigns are wildly successful, but in a world where Millenials demand authenticity from brands and social media lets them look right into the heart of a company, many of these campaigns seem increasingly formulaic and all too fragile if scandal suddenly strikes.
So rather than focus on Subway as a sensational singularity, it might be worthwhile to review three simple rules that can keep your brand out of the tabloids when (or if) your spokesperson ever falls from grace...
1. Focus on shared values, not borrowed interest.
Consumers buy brands that reflect their personal values, and increasingly those values extend beyond their own sense of style or performance to include their attitudes about the world at large -- how we treat each other, how we give back, how we take care of the world around us. (That's why younger and more socially conscious brands like Tom's Shoes or Warby Parker built a fan base so much faster than more established competitors.) So if you want to leverage a celebrity or build a campaign around a "real" person, make sure they reflect the same values and attitudes as your consumers and your company -- otherwise we're not going to buy it. The highest Q Score in the world doesn't matter if it's obvious that actor is only using your product because you wrote them a big check.
2. A great brand is bigger than any of us, because it represents all of us.
Iconic brands are populist brands. That's why modern brands have moved from selling to storytelling, so instead of pounding us with the same ad again and again, they deliver a series of related ads that build a much richer and more engaging brand narrative spread across the entire media landscape. Some of these stories might be delivered in the form of traditional ads, while others appear in social media, each one featuring a different character or employee or even a customer telling their personal brand experience. Even Subway extended their traditional ad campaign to include multiple athletes, from the Olympics to the NFL, as they celebrated their role as the food of choice for the healthy and fit. Lose any one of those spokespeople and the others can pick up the slack, because the brand isn't defined by any one person, it's a populist celebration of all of us.
3. What you do is more important than what you say.
This is why response time during a crisis is so critical. Consumers crave consistency from a brand, just like any of us looking for trust in a relationship. Social media isn't a patient or particularly pleasant place if there's any hint of hypocrisy, so a company's ability to quickly articulate their position and take action determines whether a publicity crisis contaminates a brand. It's a misconception that people don't like marketing -- most of us grew up in a consumer culture and consider it part of popular culture -- what consumers hate is any breach of trust in the relationship they have with your brand. Don't make excuses, don't avoid candor around a messy situation to eke out a higher stock price before the market closes, don't stick your head in the sand or pretend that I don't know that you know exactly what's going on -- just tell me what you, as a brand, are going to do about it. If you handle it with transparency you'll win my trust back before it's even lost. Hesitate and you're history.
So in summary, what does this mean for brands moving forward? Let's face it, in a world in which a mild misstep on social media can dismantle reputations overnight, building a brand platform on the shoulders of a lone individual comes with more risk today than the days when Bill Cosby could sell us all Jell-O.
But the bigger reason to think differently about how to tell a brand story is that none of us consume media or advertising the way we did just a few years ago. Our laptops are now our phones, our phone calls are now texts, and the TV is now YouTube or Netflix but definitely not broadcast television -- unless you want to spend all your ad dollars on live sports, and who can afford that? A successful brand needs to be a mosaic of messaging, each piece crafted for the media and the moment in which it appears. Contextual, topical and relevant, not a one-note symphony of sameness.
And once you start thinking about brands in that way, even the most recognizable spokesperson just becomes another facet of the brand, but never it's heart or soul.