Thursday, February 17, 2011

Does Your Brand Have Asperger's Syndrome?

Note: This is not an attempt to trivialize human autism spectrum disorders in any way. But this hit me the other day and the metaphor is apt.

Two current marketing truisms:

- A brand is a personality.

- Brands are more socially active than ever before.

But what if your brand has difficulty with its social skills?

Look at Groupon. It's a brand that is built on what it has to offer, which is deals! deals! deals! But when it made its first major branding foray on national advertising, despite being well-intentioned it ended up just pissing everyone off.

"He spit in this fish curry, didn't he?"
So what happened?

Let's compare the Groupon fiasco with some select symptoms of Asperger's Syndrome, based on social difficulties and inappropriate expression.


1.Severe impairment in reciprocal social interaction
(at least two of the following)
(a) inability to interact with peers
(b) lack of desire to interact with peers
(c) lack of appreciation of social cues
(d) socially and emotionally inappropriate behavior

Groupon's Super Bowl campaign showed complete misunderstanding of how the audience would react to its ads that made fun of social causes. This was immediately apparent in the flurry of "WTF?" Tweets among professional marketers and customers alike.

This apparently came as a complete surprise to the advertiser, who expected that a drunken football audience would "get" that it was subtly making fun of its own origins in the not-for-profit sector — despite having done nothing significant in advance to communicate it. It was as if we were all supposed to be in on a very private in-joke.

If you have friends or family with Asperger's, this may sound like a familiar situation. Inappropriate jokes, and random statements with absolutely no context, seem to come with the territory.

2.All-absorbing narrow interest
(at least one of the following)
(a) exclusion of other activities
(b) repetitive adherence
(c) more rote than meaning

3.Imposition of routines and interests
(at least one of the following)
(a) on self, in aspects of life
(b) on others

The Groupon brand owes much to the peculiarities of its founder, Andrew Mason, who is known for his bizarre answers to interviewers. When asked by the New York Times last year to confirm or deny rumours that Groupon was about to be bought out by Yahoo, he famously quipped: “Only if you want to talk about my other passion, building miniature dollhouses.”

4.Speech and language problems
(at least three of the following)
(a) delayed development
(b) superficially perfect expressive language
(c) formal, pedantic language
(d) odd prosody, peculiar voice characteristics
(e) impairment of comprehension including misinterpretations of literal/implied meanings

To me, this is sort-of about Groupon marketing and PR. When creating the ads, Groupon's agency (CP+B) failed to make any mention of the serious corporate social responsibility behind the campaign. (Later added as a last-ditch edit.) After the Super Bowl fiasco, it took the company almost 24 hours to respond to complaints. And it was too little, too late.
5.Non-verbal communication problems
(at least one of the following)
(a) limited use of gestures
(b) clumsy/gauche body language
(c) limited facial expression
(d) inappropriate expression
(e) peculiar, stiff gaze

And CP+B? Good Lord! The agency went into full defence mode. Rather than saying "sorry" and "we'll learn from this" — with empathy and humility — they just kept arrogantly hammering their Twitter followers with any positive press they could, along with too-late links to the original intent of Groupon's CSR.

6.Motor clumsiness: poor performance on neurodevelopmental examination

A week and a half later, they're still at it:

Despite the fact that the campaign has been killed.

So, what can be learned from all this? Well, when a person has difficulties with social integration, they can only work on personal strategies to deal with their own empathetic or communication deficits. (If you, or someone you love, is in this situation, start here.)

A brand is different. Even though the Groupon brand is — in some ways — and extension of its founder, it has outgrown that phase. Groupon is now well-enough known that its brand is in the hands of its consumers. Its social relations will now determine its brand value.

The good news for Groupon is that it can change its personality much more easily than a person can. In a group effort, Groupon's community manager, PR people, and whatever ad agency they choose in the future can work to educate the public about their real intentions and heal old wounds.

Plus, it can't have been that bad. I keep seeing Groupon updates from friends on my Facebook newsfeed.

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