by Alistair Mackay (@almackay) Brand evangelists can be hugely damaging for a brand, whether in politics or the private sector. It’s not just people bad-mouthing a brand that can influence others to avoid it; it’s the characteristics of those singing its praises, too.

In politics, supporters often say and do the most horrendous things in the name of the party.

Alistair Mackay

“Off message”

South African news is full of stories of ANC, COSATU or EFF leaders distancing themselves from things that were said at their rallies and gatherings. Many people have also remarked that the DA’s biggest challenge in attracting new voters is its own supporters — many of whom are vocal on social media and entirely “off message”.

Fuelled with self-righteous fury, these DA supporters go into battle as if they represent the party and all that it stands for, when often they don’t understand the party’s policy position at all. Many of these people have no official connection with the party, other than liking it, and believing that it furthers their interests. They are not even members, let alone have any influence in its decision-making bodies.

And yet the public backlash is almost always directed at the party itself. “The ANC are a bunch of hooligans!” bark the commentators after a violent protest. “The EFF/DA is racist!” they cry, after a racist poster appears at a rally or a musician fights with people on twitter.

Negative halo effect

It makes things difficult for parties that want to change their image. Supporters of a party influence how people feel about that party — and that halo effect can be negative.

It happens in the private sector, too.

With BMW, for example, there is a whole set of prejudices that kick in when people think of BMW drivers. Their reputation includes being rude, driving aggressively and being overly pleased with themselves. There’s even that joke about indicators being an optional extra on BMW cars, since they so seldom get used.

I’d bet my little hatchback

Of course, these are just silly stereotypes and I’m sure we all know perfectly nice BMW drivers, but the perception exists. And I’d bet my little hatchback that preconceived ideas about BMW drivers have put off potential buyers from buying their cars. These potential buyers may not feel like they belong in that group; they may not like what it says about them.

And, yet, BMW’s marketing isn’t about status at all, or speed. It’s about joy, and it has been since about 2009 when that global strategy began rolling out. This means that the “stereotypical BMW driver” is either oblivious of or indifferent to the kind of brand message that BMW is trying to create. And its community of fans probably has as much influence, for better or worse, as its marketing campaigns do.

Luxury fashion label Burberry was almost destroyed by its own popularity with the ‘wrong’ crowd, when its iconic beige check pattern became so widespread that the brand became associated with football hooliganism and chavs. No one wanted to buy what the chavs were buying, and it has taken the company years of smart marketing and eye-wateringly high prices to regain its appeal as a luxury brand.

What to do

We’ve all heard of marketing “tribes”, and “social” and “influencer marketing” are still buzzwords in the industry. Using your own consumers to influence others has enormous potential, because all of us trust people more than we trust advertising.

But what happens when one of your tribes damages the brand? What if the people who love you aren’t your target market, and actually put people off from engaging with your brand?

Here are a few tips for ensuring the dog still wags the tail:

  1. Understand exactly who is buying your brand, and why. Don’t believe your own hype or assume that it is necessarily the people you are targeting. Understand how these different tribes influence your desired target market. If their influence is positive or neutral, you don’t have a problem. But your target market may want to distance themselves from the kinds of people who most visibly associate with your brand. Brandy producers, for example, struggle with building super-premium brandy brands because of the popularity of low-end brandies and consumer prejudices against the people who drink them.
  2. Find the right influencers and educate them. Identify the people that your target market trusts and empower them to tell the brand story that you want told. Collaborate with them, and create easy-reference guides so that they have the information they need when taking on rogue brand fans.
  3. Be relentless in focusing on the target market that’s good for brand growth — understand what they need, their context and viewpoints. Hone your messaging to push the right buttons to catch and hold their attention, without being distracted by the noise from your vocal, off-strategy fans.
  4. Tackle the issue head on. If a group of brand fans really does hold your brand back, it may be worth challenging the relationship. It’s a risky and bold move to make, as it will damage existing sales, yet it may be necessary for long-term brand survival. The DA has lashed out at its more conservative supporters before. Burberry quietly clamped down on all illegal vendors of its check pattern and bought back the licences from all the other companies that had licences to produce it. It improved its design and its narrative, and increased its pricing to give the brand premium appeal.

Important for marketers to understand

When your brand has huge appeal and is flying off the shelves, it’s strange to think that there could be a problem.

But, as social media brings down the walls between brands and people — as marketing becomes all about community and conversation again — it’s important for marketers to understand who their community is and how these tribes of people influence one another and potential new consumers and markets.

If brands are like people, as so many people love to say these days, then they need to make sure they like their circle of friends.

For more on brand evangelism, social and influencer marketing,
read our columnists Mongezi Mtati and Jason Stewart.

Alistair Mackay (@almackay) is marketing manager and head of content at Yellowwood, (@askYellowwood) a leading marketing strategy and brand development consultancy. He has experience both as a brand strategist and as the digital media manager for the Democratic Alliance, and believes that innovative, insightful and generous marketing is both good for business and social change in South Africa. He contributes the monthly “Brand Politics” column, exploring lessons brands can learn and apply from politics, to MarkLives.

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