Much has been written about Groupon's PR missteps at the Superbowl over the last two days. Their three ads (representing a $3 million ad buy) poked fun at celebrity-endorsed PSAs for endangered whales, the Brazilian rainforest, and Tibet. The ads were variously described as in bad taste or simply poor communications because they failed to mention that Groupon was matching people's donations to these causes up to $100,000.
What the Groupon ads do offer, however, are useful lessons in a) effective communication in today's social business marketplace; b) what happens when traditional and social media mentalities collide and; c) how well-intended cause marketing must be managed for a brand to resonate with consumers. Let's take them one by one.
a) Clearly the audience for the Superbowl is enormous and varied but one thing today's consumers share is a heightened awareness of global crises, causes and social issues thanks to information on the Internet shared in real time using social media. As such, there is a level of sophistication to consumer's understanding of the challenges the world faces, and specific causes such as Tibet, the environment or the oceans. It is a dangerous tactic to poke fun at these issues even if your brand is the butt of the joke. At worst, such strategies are seen to put the brand's desire for you to like them above the gravity of these causes. At best, the Groupon ads were inspired by good intentions but they weren't clearly communicated, which means the ads were poorly executed.
b) As such, the Groupon campaign is a powerful demonstration of a traditional media mindset being applied to a social media marketplace. It demonstrated a failure to understand that effective communication now requires that a brand be the chief celebrant of a community rather than its celebrity. In this case, the awkward attempt at humor may be due in part to the expectation that these were to be "Superbowl ads." As such, the humor overwhelmed the intent, leaving the commercials falling between the two stools.
This mistake is especially odd since Groupon is a daily deal platform that turns on collective action whose dynamics now drive much of the social media marketplace. As such, the driver of all communications should be their community. Plus Groupon understands very well how the marketplace has changed. The Superbowl is no longer the largest platform for a brand to talk about itself, but rather an amazing opportunity to amplify the needs, wants and hopes of a brand community.
c) Cause marketing by brands is on the rise for a very good reason — these universal values allow brands to be innately relevant and sharable within social media communities. But greater brand adoption does not make these issues any less sensitive, especially to customers. A brand must earn serious credentials within the social change space before it can confidently take license with the seriousness of cause issues. Even though Groupon's roots are in social activism through The Point and now with G-Team Initiative, they miscalculated how to use cause marketing because the majority of the Superbowl audience knows little about them and even less about their meaningful cause efforts. It's no surprise then that consumers mistook them as appropriating cause issues for the sake of humor in a way that left people shaking their heads.
So what does Groupon do? Andrew Mason, Groupon CEO, has written a blog post that aims to justify their strategy while also explaining their intentions. Such justification will have little effect after the fact and it's tortuous logic to argue that at least the bad publicity has brought greater attention to these causes. But a clear statement of their true intentions is a great start. While he falls short of apologizing, Mason does state:
"The last thing we wanted was to offend our customers — it's bad business and it's not where our hearts are."
Fair enough, and few doubt their good intentions. If nothing else, the campaign serves as a lesson in the perils of a headlong rush to create a "Superbowl ad campaign", the distraction of being an e-commerce darling in a blooming IPO marketplace, and in the recognition that while causes make good marketing they are far more important than that.
Do you believe theGroupon campaign has been unfairly judged? How do you think they are handling the PR fallout?