Tough lessons to learn: Why doing due diligence around cultural context is more important than ever for marketers & brands

No, no, no DomiNO’s. 

I’ve taken longer than usual to write this piece because, in my gut, I’m having a hard time stomaching the latest ‘campaign’ that Domino’s New Zealand put out into market earlier this week.

Much like their dough, I felt my blood-pressure rise when I saw that a pizza company was taking on ‘Bad Karens’ of the world by shining the light on good ones. All in jest – of course. When I first saw a screenshot of the brand’s original campaign Tweet on an industry friend’s Instagram story (their comment was a slew of “EEK!” emojis), I thought the tweet had surely come from a parody account. Someone was taking the proverbial piss. 

But, as I often am in life, I was completely wrong. The actual, blue-tick certified Domino’s New Zealand brand had spent time, money, & resource on putting a social media competition into the ether with an underpinning of an appropriated cultural meme without thinking about the depth of conversation that they were attempting to hijack in a jovial (& ultimately jarring) way. 

Setting the scene.

I need to say this right here & now before going any further, too: Brands cannot be tone deaf in a time of overwhelming access to tools for listening, data, education, insight, as well as the ability to connect with others 24/7. 

I think it’s important to note as well that not all coverage is good coverage. Believe me, it’s not. I know all too well about this particular kind of professional sting because I’ve been in the trenches of social media marketing & brand building since most of the TikTok Talent alive today were knee-high to a grasshopper. And booooooy have I f*cked up in the past myself! 

In today’s content soaked world, consumers are smarter than we marketers give them credit for – but we don’t treat them like they are. Not to mention, we’re living in a time of purpose & meaning. When you get things this wrong, it usually means that there’s been a breakdown in understanding how to build & create resonance with your brand whilst connecting this resonance to a higher, organizational purpose.

It is our job as the folks who hold large budgets & thus have overbalanced access to human attention at scale, to put communications into the world that betters humanity. It is not our job to “sell at any cost” & to widen destructive cultural chasms by throwing gasoline on already out of control wildfires. 

Benefitting from cultural memes.

If you’re going to benefit off of a cultural moment monetarily, then it is imperative that you understand the moment so inherently that if anything backfires you can react to said backfire compassionately.

We all know what a rollicking ride of a last 8 months we’ve all lived through. From a global pandemic to civil tensions to wider discussions on race, gender, privilege & diversity – there should literally not be a single person at the helm of any business (large or small) or decision-making process who can say that they’re not “aware” of cultural tensions as they pertain to the moment in time we’re all living in right now. 

Ignorance then, especially in business, is not bliss anymore. And this idea about a current trending meme, whilst it might’ve seemed like a fun little play in the sandbox of cultural relevance & youth culture, isn’t fun or relevant at all.
It hasn’t reflected well on the brand. And, it’s put a bad taste in my mouth.

Why the bad taste? Well, let’s define a ‘Karen.’

Defining a culturally contextual ‘Karen.’

In today’s cultural context, a ‘Karen’ is a stereotype of a white woman who uses her privilege to demand her own way at the expense of others. As a global cohort, we’ve seen an explosion of the use of ‘Karenisms’ over the past 8 months. Some have been overtly dripping in irony, others have been outright galling. At best the memes that feature Karens’ are cringeworthy, at worst they’re pulling back the covers on blatant racism.

For me this campaign was one of very few for which I broke my “never post publicly on a Facebook post by a brand you love who has stuffed up” rule. While trying to be seen as funny & sassy, social media managers responded by shooting down customers who responded that the campaign was disrespectful & hurtful to them. I couldn’t believe my eyes. Mocking your own customer base? Eek. Compassion is worth everything in this world. And worth even more for brands on social media. 

Knowing better & doing better.

So how can we all do better & what lessons can we learn from this oopsie moment?

I reckon the first thing we can do is not cancel anyone. Cancel culture is rife & means the human aspect of making mistakes cannot be tolerated in a world where mistakes make us who we are. Cancel culture is even more silly when it means you can’t have your fave vegan pizzas anymore (yes I will draw a moral line at delicious pizza pies & err on the side of “They messed up & will do better next time.”)

Following the whole “not cancelling brands/people/products at the drop of a hat” here are 5 quick checks all of us can & should do before posting or going live with any culturally explicit campaigns:

1.    Do Your Cultural Homework.

Cultural relevance is of the utmost importance when stepping into the realm of social media & community engagement campaigns. As far as the Karens meme goes, a quick Google search brings up this piece from Time Magazine (published in early July) https://time.com/5857023/karen-meme-history-meaning/

A simple read through this piece on its own, without even looking any further, would’ve had the idea on the shop floor in an instant for most brands. For a pizza brand that is known for yummy food, technological innovation, & good service locally – the mind boggles still as to how this made it to being published. 

The lesson for all of us to learn? It’s much easier to decide whether or not we should enter a conversation as a brand when we’re armed with knowledge.  So, dive deeper.  Do your cultural homework.

2.    Ask Others.

This one is simple. I know from working in big brands & agencies for a couple decades now that sometimes we get so excited about an idea that our vision about it becomes myopic. When we ask people who aren’t in marketing, advertising, or who might think differently to us about an idea (& when we are truly open to constructive feedback), then we grow. 

Mistakes happen. They happen more often when we work in vacuums of our own making. So ask others, look beyond arm’s length, & be prepared to can an idea if it’s not right. 

3.    Stick to your purpose.

Every piece of content, every campaign, every official communication that goes out on behalf of a brand not only reflects on the brand itself, but sets up a framework of interpretation for consumers who are on the receiving end of said business communication. When your campaigns or your content are at odds with your purpose, it’s not only off-putting – it breaks down brand trust. 

We’re all guilty of putting out ads simply to fill a media placement or creating “engagement campaigns” to make a spreadsheet look better at the end of the month. The lesson here is that, if we’re living our purpose as a business, we’ll only ever build trust instead of breaking it through dissonance. Show up as you, always. And, if you haven’t been invited into a cultural conversation, it’s always a good idea not to jump right on in shouting. 

4.    Be Kind. 

This article is about kindness. What it’s not about is wokeness. Kindness is awareness. And awareness means thinking beyond a singular brand as you hope it might be interpreted in a vacuum. Awareness of the world, humanity, & the community in which you work is of the utmost importance. Now, more than ever. So before signing anything off, all of us should be asking: is this kind to everyone? If the answer is “No,” go back to the drawing board.

To close this article, I think that the “Good Karens” idea should’ve been binned in the same breath as it was tabled. It is a complete miss. It was always going to be. Especially when people will do almost anything & have almost any conversation for free pizza! It’s not a hard product to love or sell.

I am a big fan of Domino’s & love how the brand showed up just before Covid-19 hit NZ & have enjoyed the smarts behind a lot of the messaging the brand has shared so far this year. 

As for the original ‘Karens’ competition, Domino’s pulled their posts from social media (first Twitter, then Facebook) & posted a quasi-apology on social media that lacked heart & true ownership of the mistake that was made. Personally, I would’ve been happy with an “Oops, like our cheese-filled crust, we stuffed up. 😬 We will do better.” At least that’d show a bit of humility & understanding.

At this moment in time, I hope we all take a step back & think longer & more heartfully about what we’re suggesting to put into the world. This might seem extra-cheesy, but I hope that this becomes a beautiful lesson not just for Domino’s, but for all of us. None of us are immune to making mistakes, but we are able to learn & evolve constantly. 

Mistakes, at the worst of times are hard lessons to swallow, but at the best of times they are gifts. I choose to think the best of Domino’s & their team.  I hope they reflect deeply on this campaign before any other cultural meme idea sees the light of day in the future.

A mantra for us all:

Listen, learn, evolve, grow, repeat.

Listen, learn, evolve, grow, repeat.

Listen, learn, evolve, grow, repeat.

This story originally appeared on Cassie Roma’s LinkedIn.

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