Marketing in the Era of #FakeNews

Brands are more frequently finding themselves in the crosshairs on social media or in other media due to controversies; usually over their perceived mis-steps – mis-perceived or otherwise. Sometimes, it’s just because they’ve been caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.

In those instances, it’s important for organisations to identify its values and have a plan in place. Peter Horst, Fortune 500 CMO and Founder of CMO Inc, shares his thoughts during the CMO Club Virtual Roundtable.

The discussion’s topic is aptly named: Marketing in the Era of #FakeNews.

“Consumers now expect brands to take a stand and make a difference,” Peter said. “That becomes a pretty tricky business – if you weigh in, you may make a lot of people happy but at the same time, you may make a lot of people unhappy.” Oddly, at the same time, consumers can view silence as complicity.

“(Consumers think that) if we don’t hear from you, we can assume you have no values. (Worse,) you become an empty vessel that is whatever we say you are,” Peter said. “Life is pretty tricky for those of us that manage brand and reputation.”

However, he argued there is a spectrum of positions that a brand can adopt to ensure they are not on polar extremes with brand values.

On what he called the ‘brand risk-relevance curve’, Peter identified four spots that organisations can consider; specifically, when weighing the risks of negative reaction and responses against their relevance to consumer concerns…


At the least risky end of the spectrum, an organisation can identify its own values internally. Perhaps it doesn’t want to weigh in publicly for a variety of reasons. However, it can go through the process and introspection to identify what its operations stands for and what are its values.

This is key, Peter shared, because “even if you don’t want to comment publicly, something can happen and it’s important to have a response ready.”


Slightly higher in terms of risk, but still maintaining some neutrality, an organisation can define a few aspects in how it creates a purpose. This mostly focuses on universal, evergreen, and positive issues that it wishes to embrace.

For example, Peter cited Dove’s Real Beauty campaign. “Purpose is characterised by not being terribly controversial — people aren’t going to rise up against it,” he shared.


“With this, you’re moving into spikey, current, timely, and tension-filled topics,” Peter added. These still may not be “for and against” issues, but an organisation can take a standpoint on any topic that is has concerns with; even align with what the general public view as negative.


In this posture, you choose to stake out a position — “you’re saying you are for “X” and against “Y,” Peter added. Nike did this with Colin Kaepernick by deciding to come down on the sportsman’s side.

“There has been some lively debate afterwards,” he noted. “I thought the move as bold and believe it’s a long-term smart bet; but others feel it looks like, and can be seen as, brand suicide.”

Brands don’t need to stay in one place on this curve.

An example is how Patagonia has been very devoted to its brand purpose. The company cherished the national wilderness. However, when an executive order abolished millions of acres of national park, just overnight Patagonia moved from purpose to taking a strong position.

According to Peter, it took-to-task in the moment, without focus groups or round tables, because it has been very clear on its values.

“To do anything except step in would have been to abdicate those values,” he said. “No one right answer exists for all brands, but they must at least get to the heart of their values.”

“As we’ve seen over and over, it’s a world where there’s almost no position that everyone can agree on. However, when it’s clear why you believe what you do, then people will respect you for it,” Peter added.

If businesses are going to step into the arena and engage in a topic, it they must choose their focus issues carefully. This can be a spot where companies go wrong. “It’s easy, even with the best of intentions, to engage in a topic that they are not welcomed in.”

He points out three considerations that may help:

– Is this an important issue to society? Does it matter? It is worth the time and energy?

– Is there some brand truth that relates to this issue? There must be an authentic connection between brand and issue.

– And finally, is there brand permission? It may be an important issue and the brand may have a connection, but it’s not enough just to have a valid connection. There needs to be some openness among folks who are closest to the issue

Whatever the brand chooses, it’s important to start internally – from leadership to board to employees. “Don’t steamroll objections: either respect or turn them around and get them on board.”

“That way, you have buy-in, consensus, and real skin in the game,” Peter said. “Because whether you weigh-in or not, but especially if you do so publicly, your hot-seat odds go up. The last thing you want is to be out there under fire and have people pointing fingers; specifically, at each other and second guessing all their decisions.”

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