‘The internet means a brand crisis can come from anywhere’

The internet has been a powerful equaliser but it has also had unintended consequences, leading to a decline in trust and meaning marketers need to go back to basics, says Sue Farr.

brand crisis

The biggest change in the past 40 years – because it has had the biggest impact on how we as human beings live our lives, and collect and exchange thoughts – is obviously the internet. It is almost impossible to imagine what it was like before it.

I don’t believe anyone wouldn’t want to have it in their lives, but one of the unintended consequences of the internet is that there has been an erosion of trust in society. People don’t control information any more. There has been a total erosion of deference and looking up to those who know better. Anything you want to know you can now find. At the same time, there has been a rise of ‘reference’, where you and I can find people that are like us on the internet.

What are the consequences for brands? That there is absolutely nowhere to hide. That authenticity is critical, because if there’s less trust, it is one of the things we turn to. Therefore, if you’re a marketer, everything has to be connected – though it often isn’t – because challenges for brands come from everywhere, in very different ways from 40 years ago.

We didn’t know about tax avoidance 40 years ago. Now, you have got big decisions taken by corporates, which are ostensibly nothing to do with brands, that impact on brands because that information is available to order.

Marketing is no longer a linear thing. The best marketers are now the ones who are ready to think laterally about where the challenges are going to come from and how they are going to ensure their brands are as holistic, authentic and solid as possible, so there are no chinks in their armour. Those chinks will be found out. Those chinks will widen. Those chinks will destroy the brand.

That’s not how it used to be. Marketers and advertisers were on transmit mode and consumers were on receive mode, and that now seems almost as ancient as the Ark.

What was the worst that could happen in 1978? You could get a product recall or a company could be taken over. There weren’t the cataclysmic challenges for brands that there are now.

Brands have got to go back to basics – who are we, what are we here for? Let’s be honest and truthful about it. We can entertain and inform along the way but that’s a powerful mission.

As told to Michael Barnett

Sue Farr was a director of marketing and communications for the BBC, Thames Television and Vauxhall, and was chair of both The Marketing Society and the Marketing Group of Great Britain. She is now a special advisor at Chime Communications and non-executive director at companies including BAT and Dairy Crest.