How the court of public opinion is striking fear into businesses

Consumers have gained tremendous power over businesses that meet their disapproval. Many firms should have more to fear from concerted activism on social media than they do from a regulator’s knuckle-rap

The closing lyrics of Beyond the Son, a song by Swedish electro-jazz duo Koop, offer the perfect sign-off for any cordial correspondence: “May the winds be at your back, the dice be kind and the gods turn the occasional blind eye.” 

The track was released in 2006, the year of Twitter’s birth. To brands, the millions of consumers who use the social network have become the gods who never turn a blind eye. They constantly demand transparency from organisations and are incredibly quick to upbraid any firm or sector whose behaviour falls short of their expectations. 

If the online clamour isn’t handled adroitly by those on the receiving end, it can soon turn into hysteria. At that point, the traditional media will often notice and pile on too. Eventually, if the furore is sufficient, an industry regulator may get involved. But the serious reputational damage will already have been done by then. Boohoo, Nestlé and Zara are among a number of brands that have been shamed on social media for various reasons and boycotted by consumers in recent years.

“Social media is vital in bringing bad business practices to a wider audience, including regulators,” says Rick Evans, strategy director at marketing company R/GA London. “Because social media allows the impact of consumer action to be amplified, companies will often change before the slow wheels of regulation and legislation move.”

Evans cites the case of buy-now-pay-later (BNPL) finance as an example of how public pressure can help to trigger legislative action. The £2.7bn sector had attracted a storm of criticism on social media for failing to prevent vulnerable consumers from running up high levels of debt. In October 2021, the Treasury published a consultation paper setting out its plans to impose tight regulations on BNPL credit agreements and put the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) in control of the UK market.

Social media is vital in bringing bad business practices to a wider audience, including regulators

Abbie Morris is the co-founder and CEO of Compare Ethics, a search platform that helps eco-conscious consumers to find brands that match their values. She is pleased that the authorities have started catching up with organisations that have been publicly criticised as exponents of so-called greenwashing. Only recently have “governments started to impose tougher legislation following the reaction of consumers”, she says, citing BP’s “Possibilities Everywhere” TV advertising campaign as a recent example.

“The energy firm caused public outrage when it highlighted its solar and wind energy projects, having also revealed that about 96% of its annual spending went on fossil fuels. This prompted authorities to step in and present the case that ‘fossil-fuel companies’ should not be able to buy a good reputation for their climate-damaging products through advertising,” Morris says.

In terms of consumer pressure prompting both companies and legislators to act, advertising is an interesting topic, suggests Vikki Williams, customer experience officer at Starling Bank. “Phishing attacks are on the increase”, she says, “and many of these attempted frauds are generated through ads on social media platforms such as Meta’s Facebook and Instagram, which don’t require financial services providers such as crypto platforms to be regulated by the FCA.”

Starling Bank has recognised that this lack of regulation is problematic, which is why it no longer pays Meta for advertising. Moreover, Williams and her colleagues have lobbied the government to extend its online safety bill to cover fraudulent adverts. They have also spoken to “tech giants directly, to encourage them to follow in Google’s footsteps and rethink their advertising practices”.

Williams has noted “encouraging signs of progress” on both fronts. A recent parliamentary report strongly advised amendments to the draft legislation, while Meta has announced that it will alter its advertising policies and procedures. “It’s proof that businesses and their customers working together can achieve real change,” she says.

The court of public opinion has never been so busy in the digital era. Consumers are more willing than ever to praise good experiences and carp about bad ones on social media. Recent research by reviews platform Feefo indicates that we are 29% more likely to leave feedback about our dealings with businesses than we were before the pandemic. 

Businesses and regulators alike have little choice but to listen as the public become increasingly vociferous about a range of key topics. This year, data privacy will be one such topic, predicts Rafi Azim-Khan, partner at law firm Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman and leader of its data privacy and cybersecurity practice in Europe. 

“In the digital economy, even if a regulator in one country is slow to respond to a complaint, regulators in other nations will take direct action. For instance, France’s data privacy regulator has recently fined Google and Facebook in the US,” he says. 

We appear to be at the start of a new phase of increased liability for businesses

In addition, more “US-style class actions” are being brought in jurisdictions where previously such cases were rarities. Take Lloyd v Google, for instance, which reached the UK Supreme Court in November. Richard Lloyd, a former director at the Consumers’ Association, brought a representative compensation claim under the Data Protection Act 1998 on behalf of about 4 million people who, he argued, had been affected by a workaround enabling Google to collect browser-generated data from their iPhones in 2011-12. The Supreme Court found unanimously for Google, overturning the Court of Appeal’s landmark decision, but Azim-Khan argues that the direction of travel is now clear.

“The trading and compliance landscape has changed dramatically. Companies must wake up to this fact and respond accordingly,” he says. “When the court gave its verdict, several newspapers and commentators trumpeted that it slammed the door on the possibility of US-style class actions in the UK. But they were missing an important point: even though Google was victorious on the facts before the court on this occasion, the verdict wasn’t a bar to anyone bringing representative actions that take a different approach.”

Stressing the significance of the case, Azim-Khan warns: “The upshot is that businesses are facing a kind of double jeopardy: if regulators don’t punish their missteps, customers could still do so through the courts. We appear to be at the start of a new phase of increased liability for businesses. It’s the calm before the storm – and companies are sailing into dangerous waters.”

Given that the consumer gods are becoming even less inclined to turn a blind eye to any firm that veers off the approved course, businesses will be hoping that they’ll at least have the winds at their backs.

This article was first published in Raconteur’s Future Customer report in February 2022

The war for talent is raging: Here’s how to make your LinkedIn profile sparkle

Some call it the Great Resignation. LinkedIn, the world’s largest professional network with almost 800 million users, labels it the Great Reshuffle. Whichever phrase you use, it’s clear: the war for talent is raging like never before. More people than ever, spurred by the coronavirus crisis, are seeking to change their course of life, which translates to curriculum vitae in Latin, fittingly.

“We are experiencing unprecedented change when it comes to work,” Charlotte Davies, careers expert at LinkedIn, told WorkLife. “The coronavirus crisis has driven people to consider what they truly want from work and life. Because of this, companies are rethinking their entire working models, culture, and values.”

While employers must do more to attract and retain skilled workers, employees should update and polish their resumés. That said — perhaps it’s more worthwhile to buff one’s LinkedIn profile, given that research from last April suggests a person is hired via the platform every 15 seconds. 

This article was first published on DigiDay’s WorkLife platform in January 2022 – to continue reading please click here.

Businesses wake up to the immense potential of TikTok

Companies are increasingly cottoning on to the fact that the video-sharing app, once seen as the preserve of the young, is increasingly a powerful marketing tool to reach all ages

TikTok celebrated its recent fifth birthday by announcing that more than one billion people – almost one-in-eight people on the planet – now use the video-sharing app every month.

And its star is only set to shine brighter: a new social media trends report for 2022 by marketing experts HubSpot and consumer intelligence platform Talkerwalker suggests it will continue to expand and “take over social media”, forcing other brands to adapt. This is based largely on TikTok’s highly personalised feed, which curates different content for each user drawing on known interests as well as previous likes and comments on the platform, instead of simply showing them videos from accounts they have chosen to follow.

Given this colossal global reach and potential, combined with the ability to easily record and edit videos of up to three minutes in-app and then share clips to multiple platforms, it’s no wonder that businesses of all sizes are flocking to the platform. TikTok’s growing corporate appeal, including to B2B companies such as financial and technical services providers, has been boosted by a shift in the user demographic. Once seen almost solely as the preserve of the young, the latest user base statistics show that almost one-in-four users are now over the age of 30.

However, despite this promise, getting started can still be daunting to companies unused to using video as part of their marketing efforts. As inspiration, here are five examples of brands using TikTok in unexpected ways to expand their audiences and boost awareness of their services.

•   Sage

In February, Sage – a cloud business company best known for its accounting software – launched the #BOSSIT2021 Challenge, challenging UK small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) to use their creativity to showcase their ‘boss it’ moments inside work or out. Over one million companies took the opportunity to show how they were excelling despite the uncertain times. The overall winner was Broken Planet Market, a recycled fabrics clothing company, which documented the struggle to keep up with storage in the one-bedroom flat it is run from after the company ‘blew up’ on TikTok.  A podcast, a yoga company and a jewellery business were among the runners-up in the campaign, which won the Best Use of TikTok Ads category at the UK Paid Media Awards.

Sophie Fresco, a TikTok specialist for communications consultants Hotwire Global, says Sage is continuing to build on that initial success. “Following the triumph of the #BOSSIT2021 Challenge, it asked followers to use #SageTellMe and create their own videos and explain how they are an SME without saying they are an SME,” she says. “The hashtag has over 4.5 billion views, so far.”

•   Harvard Business Review

The renowned business management magazine posts videos on how to “deal with work, school and life” and has over 1.2 million likes. Its TikTok account is an extension of its global Ascend brand, which targets modern young professionals just starting their careers and is not behind a paywall – unlike the content targeted at more mature workers. Paige Cohen, Ascend’s editor-in-chief, told media trade magazine Digiday that: “We introduce younger people to the brand, help them build better habits, help them make better career decisions. And when the day comes that they’re more in the middle of their careers instead of at the beginning, they will turn to the Harvard Business Review content.” She, and other editors, are the faces seen on TikToks on subjects including interview hacks and tips, and Halloween-themed resumé killers to give “more personality and connection to the brand”.

•   Gymshark

“On TikTok, you’ve got to put entertainment and comedy value before your product,” advises Harvey Morton, digital expert and founder of Harvey Morton Digital. He singles out Gymshark, a British fitness clothing and accessories brand which posts content designed to help its users stay active, as using the platform well. “They have built up a large following from posting consistent, quality videos from workouts, workout memes and inspiration,” he says.

Playfulness seems to be the winning ingredient. Gymshark’s profile description states: “Nothing to do with sharks. Something to do with the gym.” On TikTok, the brand has 3.4 million followers, and its irreverent videos about life in the gym – including men wearing crop tops to work out and pet dogs obediently watching their owners lift weights – have amassed more than 51 million likes.

•   Marks and Spencer

M&S dates back to 1884, but its food division has enhanced its modernity by entering the TikTok scene and using the self-parodying profile description “This is not just any TikTok page…”, in a nod to the brand’s famous marketing tagline. By leveraging the reputation of own-brand sweet favourite Percy Pig, piggybacking #FoodTikTok and responding to viral trends and news, M&S Food has attracted 133,000 followers and over 2.3 million likes. A recent video for Hallowe’en, which showed Percy Pig and friends doing an amusing ‘pumpkin workout’ to a spooky song, generated over 110,000 plays in less than a week.

•   Ryanair

The budget airline offers a perfect example of how a sense of humour can trigger a surge in customer engagement and brand presence on the platform. The consistency and tone of Ryanair’s TikTok output has attracted over one million followers. The formula is simple – often images and footage of its planes with superimposed human facial features, or cabin crew sharing common thoughts – but very effective. Set to funky music, the results are amusing but subtly keep attention focused on the airline’s branding and core product of low-priced flights across Europe.

•    Miss Excel

Used well, TikTok can raise the profile of individual entrepreneurs, too. For example, Kat Norton – aka Miss Excel – has danced her way to becoming a full-time spreadsheet influencer by making Microsoft Excel “fun”. Having attracted over 652,000 followers and had one video go viral with over three million views, she has given up her day job as a consultant to focus on being Miss Excel.

She mostly posts clever dance videos containing shortcuts, tips and tricks for the masses, with a subtle message to seek out her courses. Normally, how-to videos are step-by-step posts, possibly with screenshots with helpful arrows. Not so Miss Excel. The message for other businesses is that it’s not just what you do, it’s how you frame it. Even the dullest of subject matters can become fun and excite with a quirky twist.

“You have to have an element of polarity,” Norton told Quartz, when asked what makes a successful TikTok profile. “When you take something as boring as Excel and something so different like dancing and combine them… people are flabbergasted.

Joining the TikTok revolution

So, now we’ve shown a snapshot of how other businesses are embracing the TikTok opportunity, why should yours join them? Top of the long list of reasons to post on the social media platform are that it’s free to use and videos can be as short as 15 seconds in length, so content can be produced and published quickly. Crucially, you needn’t be a big brand or have a big budget to make TikTok a success.

Additionally, Jon Abrahams, global managing director of virtual office provider Rovva and a big fan of TikTok, suggests bearing in mind that while the playful nature of the platform is forcing brands to be more innovative, quality rather than quantity of content is still key.

“It’s important to remember that your business’s TikTok account is essentially an extension of your brand, and jumping on trends that don’t fit with your core purpose and values can make your response appear out of place,” warns Abrahams. “This can negatively impact engagement with your brand. Essentially, don’t try to do everything that’s trending; if it’s not in line with your brand personality, leave it.”

Lastly, remember TikTok’s stated mission to “inspire creativity and bring joy”. In this spirit, businesses should not be afraid to experiment or try doing things differently. And certainly, they ought not shy away from being either bold or quirky with their videos. While there may be an element of trial and error to begin with, those that craft a winning TikTok marketing strategy will discover it can pay off, handsomely.

This article was first published on First Word Media in November 2021