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Brand Purpose Brand Strategy Liquid Death

The hidden taboo working against your brand: embarrassment

By Andrew McLean, Head of Strategy, EMEA

Bulletproof

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July 11, 2023 | 8 min read

With the help of YouGov data of thousands of brands, Andrew McLean of agency Bulletproof looks at what makes brands bulletproof against embarrassment, and how the best navigate embarrassing moments.

A bulldog in a pineapple costume, looking perhaps a little sheepish

How are embarrassment dynamics secretly impacting your brand? / Karsten Winegeart via Unsplash

When were you last embarrassed? Really embarrassed; red-faced, ground-swallow-you-up embarrassed?

It doesn’t happen often. You might have one or two devastatingly memorable moments in your life: those rare, squeamish horror shows we all play back in the darkest hours of insomnia.

You know what is frequent, though? The fear of embarrassment. It’s an ever-present terror, and one that’s clearly irrational considering how rare life-changing embarrassment is.

As Harvard psychologist Susan David puts it, “Embarrassment shines a light on things that are of value to us… it can signpost things that we care about.” David reminds us that embarrassment is important. It has a part to play in forming what we value. Ultimately, embarrassment leads us to a better understanding of our own identity.

If what we fear being embarrassed by is what we value, then our appearance matters; as does our social standing, what we know, and what we achieve. Brands’ expressions of identity really matter. It’s important to understand how to avoid being the brand equivalent of dad-dancing at a wedding and how to instead build purpose, pride, and all-important advocacy.

Is your brand embarrassing?

YouGov’s brand index poses a useful question regarding brand reputation: Imagine you were looking for a job (or you advising a friend looking for one. Which of these businesses would you be proud/embarrassed to work for?

From that simple basis, we can categorize sectors. We can rank employers. We can track their movement over time to better understand what drives positive or negative changes regarding whether people would choose to work for them.

For example, the most embarrassing sector to work in is (by far) leisure and entertainment. But that’s purely down to gambling and betting businesses within that sector pulling down averages. Meanwhile, apart from charities, the most prideful industry is watch retail, with Rolex being the gold (excuse the pun) standard within that category?

Here are three key lessons to learn from analyzing the reputations of over 1,450 brands:

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1. Purpose makes pride

There’s a red thread between the brands that people seem proudest to be associated with: prominent and clearly communicated purpose.

Brands like Toms, Patagonia or Allbirds (considered three of the most purposeful retail brands) all sit above category averages of reputation. And Eco-cleaning brands Seventh Generation and Method consistently outperform a sector whose reputation is in long-term decline.

Brand purpose isn’t a panacea of course, but it can create perceptions of pride, for both employees and consumers. But if a brand has not been built with a clearly defined purpose from inception, how do you create brand purpose? It starts with understanding your audience and getting to the heart of your brand’s reason for being. Ask yourself what values you and your audience share, or the category or cultural norms you can challenge to become closer to your audience.

Liquid Death did just that, disrupting the crowded packaged water market to capture the attention of an alternative audience (flirting with potentially embarrassing brand strategy too).

Likewise, Toblerone’s ambition to ‘be more triangle’ in both its product and quirk-celebrating brand, understood the intersection of audience and brand to create purpose.

2. Brand recommendation is reputation

By some margin, the metric most closely correlated with reputation, in almost every category, is likelihood-to-recommend. Remember Susan David’s thoughts on the importance of values, and the risk of social embarrassment. Nobody wants to recommend a brand they don’t want to be associated with.

What steps can brands take to positively influence recommendation? One is to incorporate post-purchase thinking into the full consumer experience. Creating opportunities for advocacy is part of this. Brand advocacy involves more than just repeat purchases or even loyalty: it’s a customer mindset, earned over time.

Brand advocates, the customers most likely to recommend your brand and service, are the most powerful resource in your toolkit. Creating a powerful brand experience is a significant way to connect meaningfully with them. Plan to provide people with plenty of opportunities and digital touchpoints to engage with that world and share it with pride.

3. Some propositions bridge the divide

Every now and again a brand that ranks highly in brand consideration is still considered embarrassing but for one reason or another.

Then, a great product or value-offer bridges the divide, like Škoda or Kia: both considered highly, but with reputation metrics below category averages.

Škoda tells a particular story of a long-term brand turnaround, rising Phoenix-like from the ashes of decades-long embarrassment around product-quality narratives, to take pole position as the UK’s most recommended car brand in 2020. A combination of savvy sponsorships and a vastly improved product line-up over time has helped the Czech automaker build consideration of a modern, progressive brand without necessarily righting its historically poor reputation.

Be aware, though, that in some categories ­(like finance), reputation and consideration are so intrinsically linked that one doesn’t move without the other.

Building brands to be proud of

How do you do the brand equivalent of styling out someone not waving back at you into an impromptu Fonzie-esque comb-back of your hair? How do you cure embarrassment, before it impacts your brand?

Having a clearly aligned purpose and a legion of people willing to recommend you will help. And in certain circumstances, where brand consideration is high but reputation low, brands can lean into the opportunity to bridge the divide with standout product or value propositions.

Perhaps there’s also something for brands to learn from how we deal with our personal embarrassments. Whether that’s laughing at ourselves (Škoda), instantly apologizing (Pepsi’s Kendall Jenner misfire), or insisting you were actually joking (BrewDog).

Brands that are bulletproofed are set up to avoid embarrassment, but they also don’t fear it; they’re resilient, whatever comes their way.

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Bulletproof

Bulletproof is a brand agency with studios in London, New York, Singapore, Amsterdam, Sydney, Shanghai and Melbourne. Proudly independent, we exist to vanquish mediocrity...

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