At times of war marketing is rendered superficial and ridiculous

Given what’s happening in the world right now marketing really doesn’t matter, but there are ways brands can respond without appearing tone deaf.

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I know its customary to complain when someone asks to ‘pick your brain’ for free and completely out of the blue, but I like being hit up for professional favours. Not by everyone. But when one of my ex-students reaches out I always feel a pang of immediate obligation. I think of it as the ‘long of it’ for teaching that five, 10, sometimes 20 years after our last class together a marketer will ping me on LinkedIn, remind me who they are and then ask a question.

So last week when Viktoriia reached out to me and mentioned within a sentence that she’d completed the Mini MBA, was now working for a software giant and was facing “a situation” I was reaching for my keyboard before I made it to paragraph two. Did she need a reference? A reminder? A link to an old paper? Whatever, I would help.

“I was wondering,” Viktoriia asked, “if you have any thoughts on marketing strategy in a situation of war”. I gulped. Clicked on her bio and took in her location: ‘Kiev Metropolitan Area’. I gulped again and found myself almost entirely bereft of advice or options. I bumble typed something about staying safe and logged off feeling completely useless.

Only the dead have seen the end of war and, unfortunately, in the centuries since Plato first made this observation he has been proved repeatedly, and tragically, correct. But for many, especially those born after the epic fall of the Berlin Wall, last week’s events in Ukraine were a startling introduction to the nature of war and everything dark and horrid that comes with it.

Because it’s been so long, the awful shadow that war cast over everything made marketing discourse uncomfortably ephemeral last week. Anyone on social media with a conscience and more than five minutes to doom scroll through their feed was inevitably dumbstruck by the juxtaposition of the everyday marketing minutiae of influencers, advertising and awards and the posts that followed showing men and women preparing for darkness, war and death. It’s hard to take the “threat” of private labels seriously when the post that follows it shows enemy tanks barrelling down Ukrainian roads at breakneck speed. The ‘risk’ of inflation was looking relatively benign compared to the threat of nuclear weapons that surfaced over the weekend.

Nowhere was the juxtaposition more apparent than on American cable where several brands eventually pulled their ads because they were appearing, with mindboggling and entirely unintended inanity, in the midst of an air invasion. Is there a more Baudrillardian moment than watching footage of a bombing raid that is then interrupted by an ad for Applebee’s boneless wings?

And these uncomfortable contrasts and contradictions will continue into this week. The sudden recontextualisation of war renders everything marketers do superficial and ridiculous. We talk of good strategy/bad strategy and yet here was proper grown-up military strategy measured out in the lives won and lost.

We highlight ‘great leadership’ in marketing when someone in a suit grows profits by more than the projected percentage but such references become ever more pathetic with every grim yet determined appearance by Volodymyr Zelenskyy. We promote the ‘purpose’ that underpins our face creams and chocolate bars with worthy gusto only to now appreciate the difference between PowerPoint purpose and the type exhibited by the Ukrainians dropping their kids off at the border before walking back to the front line to defend their country.

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Avoid empty gestures

Ukraine opened the harsh blue and yellow curtains of reality at the weekend and shed blinding, proportionate light on the real importance that marketing, this column, and all our branding bullshit represents when set against the grand scheme of things.

But beyond that humbling realisation, there was still room for some minor moments of proper importance from the corporate sector. I say proper because it was once again all too easy to light something in blue and yellow and assume that would suffice or even obfuscate the need for anything more costly and meaningful to be done. There were plenty of brands who, like our useless fucking government, went big on lighting but stupendously empty on anything of consequence like actually allowing Ukrainian refugees into our country.

When wars end the actions of a few companies are remembered for the peaceful decades that follow.

Just as Black Lives Matter highlighted a host of companies that were big on blacked out logos but not so big on black faces in the boardroom, the superficial side of marketing saw yellow and blue cover a heap of hot air.

But there were several companies who were deeper and more practical than that. Theirs might have been small gestures when set against the battle-front but they were genuine acts of impact and value nonetheless.

Vodafone, BT and Three all played their part by making calls between the UK and Ukraine free. AB InBev was quick to turn its production lines over to the manufacture of cans of drinking water for the desperate days ahead. And whoever is running Carlsberg in Ukraine also deserves a mention for making all of its bottles immediately available, for free, for uses that went beyond drinking. Nudge nudge. Wink wink. Bang.

But the star of the show was once again Elon Musk. He was challenged by Ukraine’s vice president Mykhailo Fedorov to stop focusing on the future colonisation of Mars and turn his attention to the current occupation of Ukraine. Musk has a track record of not only using social listening but making almost immediate tactical responses to what he hears. This was Musk at his most Tony Stark. “Starlink service is now active in Ukraine,” he tweeted back at Fedorov only a few hours after the vice president’s original tweet. “More terminals en route.” Just as Putin’s rockets were targeting Ukraine’s failing internet networks, Musk restored a vital link to the outside world.

And there is precedent here. Brands and marketing are indeed entirely worthless in the face of the magnitude of war. But when wars end the actions of a few companies are remembered for the peaceful decades that follow.

When the Widow Clicquot faced her own Russian invaders two hundred years ago during the Napoleonic Wars she saved the lives of her staff by opening her cellars in Champagne to marauding Cossacks allowing them to steal everything back to Russia. “Today they drink,” she told her team with a steely gaze. “Tomorrow they will pay.” Sure enough, when the wars ended the Widow Clicquot, or La Veuve Clicquot in her native tongue, made her name and fortune from exporting her wines into Russia on the back of her original unintended market fame.

It was a similar story of short-term cost and long-term gain for Coca-Cola. During World War II Coke’s legendary president Robert Woodruff declared that “every man in uniform gets a bottle of Coca-Cola for five cents, wherever he is and whatever it costs the company”. Sure enough, as GI’s traversed the globe they were flabbergasted to see patriotic Coke ads and a ready supply of the famous beverage wherever they went.

Coke employees became Technical Observers on every front line and worked with the US government to install bottling plants everywhere American troops travelled. These ‘Coca-Cola Colonels’, as they were colloquially known within army ranks, stayed behind after the war ended and Coke’s temporary bottling plants became permanent production facilities and a big part of the brand’s eventual global domination.

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Create loyalty

Over in the UK, British families were struggling with the economic implications of World War II. Rationing had been introduced and life was tough. It was Simon Marks who dedicated his team and all the production facilities at Marks & Spencer to ensure British families had enough food to eat and, with amazing innovation, utility clothing for their families to wear.

Those decisions were largely forgotten during the horrible days of war when much bigger, more important sacrifices rightly made the headlines. But once peace was achieved and Britain returned to prosperity the enormous investment that M&S had made to support the British people was a big part of the retailer’s incredible popularity in the latter half of the 20th Century.

People remembered what Simon Marks and his team had done and it created a loyalty that outstripped anything that later competitors could offer.

And perhaps that is the only ray of light that we pointless unimportant marketing people can offer to the people of Ukraine this week. That this war, like all others, will eventually end. And that we will all try to help now and in the better days ahead. Not just because it will lay the seeds for future commercial success but because it it’s the right thing to do.

Fuck Putin, the little little man. I stand with the brave giants of Ukraine and will work hard to offer meaningful support in the weeks and years ahead. Я вітаю хоробру україну!

Mark Ritson is PPA and BSME columnist of the year. He has donated his fee for this column to the International Rescue Committee and encourages other marketers to do something similar.