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Big brands get big publicity, but is that always a good thing?

Global brands such as Apple and McDonald’s can’t consider the addition of new products, or even changes to existing ones, without swift reaction from the masses. These brands are polarizing, and their marketing efforts often have audiences in the hundreds of millions.

Despite having to please such a wide array of people with their marketing efforts, large brands are under more scrutiny than ever. Within today’s social media landscape, political correctness and audience sensitivities are at a high point. Combine this with the viral nature of social media, and the very reactive nature of its users, and the result is a world in which a small misstep can lead to a massive financial crisis for a brand.

So how do today’s mega-brands navigate the treacherous waters of marketing in the digital age, and how does a brand recover from adverse social media reactions when something does go awry?

At CHIEF, we’re experts at adapting to changing marketing climates, especially on social media. As such, we’ve decided to examine a few recent case studies of how different brands have handled the social media spotlight—both positive and negative. Specifically, we’ll be comparing two social consciousness campaigns—Nike and Pepsi—and two instances of flights being overbooked—United and Delta—and comparing how the brands played each situation.

Commercials for Change: Nike and Pepsi

On February 12, 2017, Nike, armed with high-profile celebrities such as Lebron James, Serena Williams and Alicia Keys, joined the equality conversation with a 90-second commercial spot. The commercial was released during Black History Month and presented entirely in black and white, attempting to illustrate the concept that color should not matter. The brand’s commercial sent a strong message, and helped position Nike as an advocate for racial equality. In support, Nike plans to donate $5 million this calendar year to numerous organizations that advance equality in communities across the United States. The commercial was extraordinarily well-received, to the point that social media sentiment—the emotional feeling portrayed by social media users measured by Crimson Hexagon’s Brightview Algorithm—was 97% positive around the topic. In addition, the word most commonly used to describe the commercial was powerful, certainly reflecting a result that Nike had hoped to achieve.

On the opposite end of the social media reaction spectrum is Pepsi, which also tried to join the equality conversation by presenting itself as a supporter of the Black Lives Matter movement. On April 4, 2017, the brand released a commercial featuring celebrity Kendall Jenner that spawned immediate controversy. The commercial portrays the march as a joyous event, showing young people with signs and smiling. Kendall Jenner joins the march mid-commercial, approaches the police officers, and offers them a Pepsi, seeming to garner appreciation from both the officers and the crowd. Though Pepsi was trying to portray a sense of peace and unity, the commercial was received with quite the opposite feeling from social media users worldwide. There’s been a wealth of social media backlash accusing Pepsi of trivializing the Black Lives Matter movement by appropriating imagery from serious protests to sell its product. In fact, the majority (55%) of social media posts discussing the commercial showed signs of disgust.

Flight Fiascos: United and Delta

Every airline has its ups and downs, especially when it comes to customer service. United Airlines has felt some severe turbulence since April 9, 2017 after cellphone videos of security officers physically dragging a man, Dr. Dao, off of an overbooked plane went viral. Reports indicate that flight attendants politely requested that Dr. Dao give up his seat, but he refused, and at that point police got involved. The video, which reached millions of people worldwide, has stirred up a significant social media outcry in regards to what is appropriate, or within protocol, for airlines to do when handling overbooked flights. The outrage is best detailed by the social media reaction to the incident, in which 66% of the hundreds of thousands of posts pertaining to United’s actions were negative, with 41% of users feeling disgust and 25% portraying anger.

That same day, Delta Airlines handled a similar situation in a completely opposite manner; paying a family about $11,000 to give up their seats on an overbooked flight to Florida. After hours of flight delays, Delta started offering $900 to volunteers to give up their seats, and eventually the family of three agreed to receive $1,350 each for their seats. Promised seating for the following day, the family returned to another overbooked flight to Florida. This time, the offers rose to $1,300 per seat, which the family accepted, along with lunch, round-trip taxi fare and assured seats for a Sunday flight. By this point, the trip seemed far less appealing so the family canceled and offered their seats back to the airline for $1,000 per person and a refund for the 3 plane tickets. In total, Delta paid the family around $11,000 not to fly. While this good deed makes for a great story for the brand, compared to United’s incident, which garnered over 800,000 social media posts, Delta was only discussed in just over 1,100 posts. This social reach discrepancy shows that people tend to discuss negative stories more than positive ones, exhibiting that in the world of PR, sometimes staying out of the news is the best press a brand can get.

In the instance of Nike vs. Pepsi, we saw two brand goliaths with two different results from marketing within the equality conversation, but wondered ‘does the negative coverage really matter for Pepsi?’ We believe the answer is yes. The bigger and more well-known the brand, the less important the brand awareness aspect becomes. People worldwide already know Pepsi and its products, so it is how consumers feel about Pepsi and their relationship with the brand that is important, which is why their commercial was such a huge fiasco.

Similarly, even though Delta’s act of kindness did not receive anywhere as much media play, it still nets a better result than United’s incident, which got more media play, but cost the company over a billion dollars in value on the market due to the unfavorable nature of what happened.

If one of your favorite brands became embroiled in controversy, would it cause you to change your buying habits? Let us know by sharing your thoughts on Twitter.