Can Brands Fake it Till They Make it?

Leveraging a cultural moment or a trend to go viral can oftentimes be short-lived, while brand and reputation are long-lasting, writes Pranav Kumar.

When simply interpreted, the Hebbian Principle in psychology and neuroscience says: “What fires together, wires together.” This refers to the neural circuitry that forms when we do something in association with something else – the two things interlink at a neural level.

This is similar to the adage “fake it till you make it.” You can fake a smile and be happier if self-critical emotions hold you back. You can feel better visualizing your ideal mental state. If you’re about to go on stage to speak and feel crippled with fear – apparently the fear of public speaking ranks only next to the fear of death – you can mentally picture a stellar on-stage performance, and somewhat overcome your fear. If used positively, it’s a great way to manage mental states and emotions and achieve goals.

But this often-used adage has its limitations and can even be risky. Surely, you can’t fake your way into everything. You can’t fake being rich by spending more money, nor can you fake your way into a job you don’t qualify for.


 

In a similar vein, can brands fake it till they make it to where they aspire to be as a business or to achieve the campaign goal for the moment? “Fake marketing” has trended in India with mixed reactions and outcomes.

“In a world of glitzy ‘moment marketing’ campaigns that leverage a cultural moment or a trend to go viral, immediate high-impact and noise are short-lived, while brand and reputation are long-lasting.”

In February, an internet celebrity with more than 1.3 million followers Poonam Pandey faked her death – her manager announced her untimely demise and a young life lost to cervical cancer.

Expectedly, a social media storm and a frenetic news cycle followed. Rife with speculation, rumor-mongering and misreporting based primarily on Pandey’s official Instagram post of her “demise,” the event drove coverage and conversations that derailed basic editorial ground rules on fact-checking and verification from credible sources.


 

Miraculously, Pandey came back to life the next day. She admitted she faked her demise to spread awareness of cervical cancer and spark conversations on the silent killer and leading cause of death in Indian women after breast cancer.

In yet another fake marketing moment and almost on cue, popular radio channel Fever 104 FM proclaimed the “end of the radio industry is closer than we think.” An official message about the end of the channel followed and prompted an outpour of emotions and listener and public support. A few hours later, another post titled “Old radio is now over” announced the now-reborn brand had spawned into its new and cooler avatar.

Both tactics illustrate the fine line between creative marketing and taking things too far. Emotional marketing is notably effective in getting audience response, and the Indian audience perked up and noticed these two marketing moments.

“Will public relations practitioners in the room sign off on these campaigns? If they are trying to be cautious, the answer is probably not.

In Fever 104 FM’s alleged demise, fans were saddened and many in the media industry lamented the demise of yet another media platform in what is already a disrupted landscape. Reactions were comparatively more visceral when Pandey’s fake death was revealed, with people calling the stunt distasteful and hurtful for cervical cancer patients, survivors and their families.

This begs the question – does fakery have any place in marketing and reputation? And will public relations practitioners in the room sign off on these campaigns? If they are trying to be cautious, the answer is probably not.

In a world of glitzy “moment marketing” campaigns that leverage a cultural moment or a trend to go viral, immediate high-impact and noise are short-lived, while brand and reputation are long-lasting. These campaigns are far too risky. Some ideas can alienate audiences, and brands may not fully anticipate how their actions might have negative ramifications with different stakeholders. The outcomes are akin to having to manage self-created crises.

“Confusing audiences with “fake” campaigns that foster unwarranted mistrust and a negative news cycle is the last thing brands want.”

Brands already need to grapple with too much nowadays: from fake news to misinformation and deepfakes. Confusing audiences with “fake” campaigns that foster unwarranted mistrust and a negative news cycle is the last thing brands want.

Were these truly clever marketing tactics? As expected, the Indian marketing and communications industry had mixed feelings. The majority agreed a brand demise tactic clearly does more harm than good and others cited a “creative deficit” in a rush to grab views, resulting in campaigns done in poor taste.

Memorable or not, fake marketing campaigns are fraught with risk. In most cases, they damage a brand’s credibility rather than enhancing it. Just as people can apply “fake it till you make it” positively in their daily lives, brands should also favor constructive efforts that build their reputations and trust, rather than using tactics that can take away from their believability.


Original image by Jacqueline Munguía.

 

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