The Year of Tone-Deaf Marketing: Singing Lessons for Brands in 2020

With each successive crisis in 2020, small and medium businesses have had to be acutely aware of public perception of their decisions—both internally with their employees and operations and externally with their marketing messages. We’ve watched one corporate giant after another get dragged, called out or canceled for being “tone-deaf,” and we know that consumers are watching every move. While an insensitive statement on social media or in an e-blast might not garner the same kind of public shame for a small business that companies like KFC, Miller Coors, Lysol and so many more have earned with off-color TV ads, the stakes are still very real. Disappointing loyal customers at this juncture will mean losing critical business. Re-strategizing in this turbulent and unpredictable marketplace has inspired a common fear of slipping up.

For big brands, the race to say something—anything—resulted in a barrage of cookie-cutter ads relying on platitudes and the magnification of “everyday heroes.” All these big brands accomplished was showing how similarly out-of-touch they are with not only the “essential workers” of America, but their own employees.

Back in early March when executives first retreated into their C-suites to figure out what to do, the universally safe and simple message was “We’re all in this together.” It was a platitude and a cliche, but also a consensus that sheltering in place brought some level of hardship to everyone and we could all use a little extra grace during this rough time. However, the pressure to pivot and go to market with new solutions has brought the need to differentiate back to the fore; combined with unending political tension over the coronavirus response, the Black Lives Matter movement and the fight against police brutality among other current events and concerns, many marketers are seeing this transformational time as a minefield for tone-deaf marketing. Brands of every size know that saying the wrong thing right now might cost them everything, but remaining silent is not an option either.

As a copywriter and a human being, I’ve been finding myself square in the middle of this dynamic: squeezed in between my clients’ business goals and their audience’s expectations. There are a lot of reasons why it should never have gotten to this point, but that’s another blog for another time. For right now, I think the most important thing for marketers to realize is that they are thinking about the pain of tone-deafness in the same terms that have proven to be insufficient with their audiences: that purchasing decisions are made based on pain, fear and gain. The pain is the problem, and that the solution will come to them from the outside (the “gains” of a new product or service) to restore the status quo. A marketing agency, a lone copywriter, an audience whisperer that can keep the brand alive for the time being—however long that may be.

Let’s Unpack That Metaphor

What do we really mean when we say “tone-deaf” in a marketing context? In order to sing on-key, you have to develop “an ear” for the right pitch: you have to hear it first. Whether some are born with perfect pitch and whether some are incapable of ever attaining it may never be exactly proven, but evidence shows that with practice, you can learn to carry a tune. Talented signers don’t fixate on the individual notes, but they are constantly listening for the way they sound together in an arrangement or a melody. 

So it stands to reason that one insensitive Facebook ad, one wrong note, is only a symptom of this deeper issue: your company is not hearing what’s going on in your audience’s world, and no silver-tongued copywriter can fix that for you. So if you are worried about tone-deafness, what are you doing to listen? Whose job is it at your company to be engaged with current events? Your audience’s attitudes and wellbeing? 

Like I said, I can’t fix it for you, but I will share some suggestions to help you start listening in ways that can inform your messaging in the short-term. Your brand exists in a landscape of other brands, in the context of your audience’s life, and in a dynamic, complex world. That’s not going to change, even after we have a vaccine. The goal is to accept these realities for what they are and create messages that don’t inflate your brand to take precedence over other pressing situations. Practicing these listening techniques will help you communicate with your copywriter to co-create marketing messages that ring true to your audience and earn their respect as well as their loyalty.

Listening Quick-Fixes

  • Do you meet with your leadership team on a regular basis to discuss sales and marketing goals? Tack on 15 minutes to have a critical discussion about your brand identity in the context of current events. Ask your team: What’s on your news radar that might affect our brand? What concerns are you hearing from clients right now? Have you heard anything internally that doesn’t sit right?
  • Find a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion workshop to attend. Lots of consultants and experts in the field are offering these right now, and even if you’ve been to one before, it’s a good idea to attend at least one a year. Remember that metaphor? You need to listen continuously.
  • Speaking of DEI consultants, if you’re really interested in being a company that listens, hiring one would be a great idea. They can advise on much more than hiring and HR practices. I have several in my network, so if you’re in the market, please let me know and I’d be happy to refer you!

Messaging Quick-Fixes

  • Keep the competition between your company and other brands, not between your offerings and your target audience’s other needs. Don’t ask your audience to choose you over their wellbeing.
  • If you think your brand is too fluffy or insignificant to seriously offend anyone, think again. The impulse for brands like this has always been to stay away from “politics,” but escapism is not working the way it used to. Consider allying yourself with a bigger cause to show your brand is not completely oblivious to the injustices that some in your audience may be facing. Taking a stand is better than completely sitting out and trying to convince people they should spend money on frills right now. Just ask Ben & Jerry.
  • Shy away from exclusive language when you know there are exceptions to what you’re saying. I am all for active voice, strong verbs, all those tricks we use to create a more effective message—but how much of your audience are you willing to alienate?

People are getting better at telling the difference between performative social responsibility and really caring for your audience. We’re in the worst economic crisis we’ve ever seen, and those who were already underprivileged are experiencing new hardships. People are not going to forget the perspective they are gaining right now. There’s no real end in sight, “back to normal” isn’t going to happen for everyone. And people will take this perspective with them into their working roles as well, so B2B brands are not exempt.

“Authenticity” has been the north star of branding and marketing for the past ten years or so, but now consumers are looking for a little more substance. In exchange for their loyalty and hard-earned dollars, your customer base wants to see that you are standing up against injustice and exploitation, that you have some “skin in the game” in the real world. You need brand values that run deep, but they cannot exist in a bubble. Just like singing lessons or choir practice, listening comes first, and then repetition. And it doesn’t stop there: you sing scales to warm up and attune your ear to those pitches before each practice and performance. 

So I’ll ask you again: what are you doing to listen? Do you really care about your audience, or do you just want to sound like you do? Asking yourself these questions is uncomfortable, and it’s supposed to be. Talking through them with your colleagues is even more intimidating. If you’re committed to facing that discomfort and creating content for the “real world” your audience lives in, I’d love to hear your thoughts. Let’s start a conversation.


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