Janine Hills, Founder and CEO of Authentic Leadership, was a recent guest speaker at a Zoom session for employees and global students of the IMM Graduate School, sharing her case study on the Clicks/Unilever/TRESemmé issue. One of her key discussion points was the need for a rapid response from stakeholders in situations such as these.

Brands need to learn the art of tapping into emotionally intelligent leadership in times of crisis. With each passing day, it is becoming increasingly obvious that the ice that brands are skating on is simply getting thinner – with quite a few having fallen right through.

As the fallout from the Clicks/Unilever/TRESemmé debacle continues, brand managers/marketers need to take a long hard look at what they are bringing to the table. Gone are the days when marketers, especially multinational brand custodians, could adapt to the ‘one size fits all’ approach and expect great returns.

While it is to be expected that brands are not always going to get it right – the landscape is evolving daily to becoming more inclusive and accepting, after all – why are so many brands getting it so very wrong on a global scale? From the highly researched and specialised marketing campaigns built with the backing of massive budgets, right through to more intimate, reactive social media marketing, why are brands missing the mark resulting in such catastrophic consequences?

The answer: there seems to be a collective lack of emotional intelligence (EQ) required to make authentic connections with consumers. If a brand has any hope of navigating the not-so-still waters of successful advertising in 2020 and beyond, a sound awareness of the impact of the brand’s EQ is the first step in figuring out exactly what they are serving up, and whether their consumers are going to be asking for more.

Let us dig a little deeper into what went wrong with the Clicks/Unilever/TRESemmé advert to understand just how a brand’s EQ can be one of the most critical factors in delivering relevant content that ensures ethical advertising to an unprecedentedly diverse target audience.

Firstly, any brand that has made, or is planning to make an investment into the South African market needs to truly identify and gain a real understanding of their audience. It is critical that multinationals localise their content by investing the time to listen, to learn, to recognise and to redefine the antiquated narrative that has shaped our nation, and the way we have communicated, for so long.

Our diversification is one of the key reasons that South Africa is such a creative smorgasbord of untapped opportunities. Unfortunately, until authentic engagement, a true understanding of shared experiences and an openness towards differing opinions, debates and perspectives become the core of marketers’ messaging, these kinds of monumental advertising mistakes are going to keep on rearing their ugly, and highly destructive, heads. 

Secondly, when brands market on such a global scale, it should be an absolute non-negotiable to ensure that all the boxes are ticked when it comes to content checking. Facts are facts, and cannot be disputed, but how these facts are served to consumers, whether visually, verbally or wordsmithed, is where the line between fact and fallout becomes extremely blurry. In an already hyper-sensitive market such as South Africa, the necessity for a senior brand guardian, who understands, oversees, researches, respects and ultimately is fully accountable for content cannot be emphasised enough.

And finally, when mistakes that exclude, offend or alienate large segments of the target audience happen – and yes, they will inevitably continue to happen – well-informed decisions need to be made rapidly, and with conscious thought because, in today’s digital playing field, web-based wildfire gets out of control within minutes. What happened within Clicks was first and foremost a visual mistake, with immediate fallout. It happened on a Friday, yet it took the CEO an entire weekend before addressing the issue with a written apology on the Monday – too little and too late. It is evident that the apology did almost as much damage as the incident itself. It is vital to engage on a visual, audible and written platform.

The gravitas of the apology needed to match the hurt and pain inflicted on people seeing the social media post. Instead, Clicks could have cautiously crossed the bridge with a genuine heartfelt video and statement. Understanding the psychology of your consumer, and being sensitive to it, would have allowed the powers-that-be to test the temperature on an appropriate apology and keep it regulated until the audience moves on.

So, after all is said and done, what is the key take-away for marketers? While high intelligence is certainly an asset in any advertising landscape, high emotional intelligence is proving to be priceless.

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