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The Drum

PR misdirection: did Gourmet Burger kitchen cook up a distraction?

Was Gourmet Burger Kitchen running a distraction play?

Gourmet Burger Kitchen’s recent curry war campaign is crap. Period. Nobody liked it and it was heavily criticised by those unfortunate enough to watch it. However, it conveniently sunk the news that GBK recently went into administration. This is no fluke and I’d argue that the agency behind the campaign realised that GBK had nothing to lose, did not have a lot of budget for a long, well-thought-out campaign, and they created an idea that was intentionally divisive in order to replace bad news with some less bad news.

It's not one of the group's first divisive ads, but it may be one of the last.

To execute communications that are designed to go viral or to be controversial in order to distract from bad news or grab some share of voice is undoubtedly a fine line to tread. But does it work and what do examples of it have to teach the communications industry?

Lesson 1: Viral campaigns don’t build loyalty or improve reputation in the long term.

Dilly Dilly. Two words that until this year didn’t exist, let alone one after the other. Neither clever nor funny they entered bars and pubs across the country. Easily remembered and easily repeated but totally undeserving of any type of award. However, Bud Light did, for a while, have consumers echoing their crappy ads in the very establishments that their product was available. Genius, right? Far from it. Where is Dilly Dilly now? Nowhere to be seen or heard and were I to hear a friend say it in a pub, I’d begin to reconsider just how good a friend they are.

Bud Light’s campaign was a perfect example of short-sighted thinking and the ability for content to go viral fast and be forgotten even faster. Maintaining share of voice should be a sustained effort over years, not something merely saved for a product launch. Bonds are built between brand and consumer with consistent tapping into emotion and empathy. Dilly Dilly had neither.

Lesson 2: Expensive distractions are unnecessary and undermine the image

News in the 21st Century is transient. People have it constantly streamed to the palm of their hand and actually following a news story from start to finish is incredibly difficult. While this makes it difficult for brands to get cut through, it is useful for brands that want things to be forgotten quickly.

This begs the question, is spending the time and money creating a distraction worth it? No, probably not. For proof of this, look no further than Facebook. Its torrid year has featured a degree of government and public scrutiny than few companies could weather. However, it has also featured a rise in value and share price. This begs the question does anyone remembers the scandals at all?

At a time when the news is read and moved on from so quickly, brands and agencies should make sure that every interaction they have control over is positive. If the bits you can’t control are negative, why would you add to this and undermine the image further? Yes, Zuck was in a mess and communicated poorly. But, crucially, he didn’t feel the need to overcommunicate. Sometimes keeping schtum is just as important as speaking out.

Key to this was not exposing himself to unnecessary risk and attention. He attended the hearings that he had to in the US but declined to appear before DCMS in the UK. Yes, he was criticised at the time for turning down the request, but it was a wise move in the long run. Necessary steps were then taken, in terms of the relationships Facebook has with companies such as Cambridge Analytics, and the company has since focused on products such as Portal and more positive news and gone on to grow.

Lesson 3: Bad news distraction can become a vicious cycle.

When an agency gets told that its client is going into administration and that they need to plan a campaign, they are given carte blanche. Things don’t get much worse than administration for a business and so getting rid of the news is more important than what you are getting rid of it with. However, for a brand with a long future ahead of it, using bad news to get rid of old bad news, can become repetitive and does massive damage.

Exhibit A: brand Trump. The Donald’s way of communicating is fascinating. He runs from disaster to disaster and while most of the population would shudder in the face of the chaos, he relishes it. He sees every new PR disaster as a way of moving on from the last one. The case studies of this are endless, every single day presents examples. However, the way that Trump pivoted away from what was touted as the worst week of his presidency, is the most obvious. Trump’s time in Helsinki with Putin was dire. He refused to condemn Russia and turned on his own security service, as a result, even his friends criticised him. So, how could he make the world move on? He decided to incite the wrath of one of the USA’s staunchest enemies:

And what’s worse, it worked. But, is it sustainable? No, of course, it isn’t. Because having done it once, doing it again and again and again seems extremely appealing.

Ultimately, this leads to a brand image that has nothing to it except controversy and whilst controversy sells papers, it doesn’t create brand credibility or conjure up positive images in people’s minds. Yes, Trump’s core still supports him, but the brand of Trump will not live on past his Presidency.

This is the risk that GBK has run by using this tactic. They have backed themselves into a corner. They may have distracted from the business problems they face, but they have done nothing to earn the respect of consumers or turn their business problems around.

Throughout all three of these case studies, the issues surrounding short-term thinking are exposed. Budweiser makes an impact and disappeared. Facebook weathered the storm. Trump’s approach to problem-solving isn’t problem-solving at all, it is problem creation. It will, ultimately, catch up with him.

GBK may have drawn the attention away from its administration situation but it has come at a price. A campaign that centred around charity or a good cause would have been a better bet as a means of drawing attention away from the crisis as well as giving their business a potential move towards a positive trajectory. It would have spoken to consumers with a positive tone of voice and shown GBK to be charitable even in the face of financial difficulty, rather than potentially racist...