Before the rise of social media it was much easier for a brand to get away with a marketing faux pas. Even if its mistake was spotted, it was unlikely consumers would have the platform or audience to do much about it.

Fast-forward to 2017 – Sunday February 5, to be exact. Audi successfully showed 111m Super Bowl fans, 12m YouTube viewers and millions of people on social media that it doesn’t stand by its own brand values. In case you missed it, the German car manufacturer hooked onto gender inequality in the workplace, an emotive issue that receives a lot of airtime in the US and around the world. 

The beautifully shot 30-second spot received plenty of acclaim, including from Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, who tweeted: “Love this #SuperBowl ad from Audi USA, which drives home the need for equal pay for women. Now more than ever, we need ads like this which push back on gender stereotypes.”

It’s a provocative and powerful ad. Unfortunately, Audi’s own track record of promoting women to leadership positions is poor at best. It has no women on its six-person executive team and its supervisory board comprises only 16% women, far lower than the average of 20% for Fortune 500 corporate boards and rival BMW’s 30%.

Within hours, Audi was branded a hypocrite – which was not quite the intention of the multimillion-dollar ad. At the time of writing, the YouTube video had logged more than 68,000 “dislikes”, and reviews of the company’s branding failure were being published around the world. 

Audi quickly defended its position, saying that its graduate analyst programme has a minimum requirement of 50% women and, after running an internal salary survey, the company had determined that it now has “equal pay for equal work”. However, it wasn’t able to comment on whether any gender-based salary adjustments had actually been made over the past two years.

This isn’t just an expensive public relations boo-boo; it’s a contravention of good corporate values. It also highlights why, in a world of empowered consumers, what a company’s marketing says and what the company does must align. 

Consumers expect brands to live up to their marketing messages and promises – and when they don’t, social media provides both the spotlight to shine on them and the megaphone to call them out. At best, Audi’s error will mildly erode some brand affinity. At worst, consumers’ disappointment will be shared across traditional and social media, influencing thousands of others who will take their business elsewhere.

Internal drift between departments does happen, and while Audi’s marketing team may think gender equality is a big deal, its human resources division seems to be focused elsewhere. To get everyone on the same page, Audi – and other corporates – should periodically assess how their strategic objectives align with the organisation’s day-to-day activities. This can start at a conceptual level, by reviewing brand values, aspirations, and the company’s mission statement and business performance goals. But this must also be put into action. To ensure that its strategy is realised, Audi could look at how departmental key performance indicators contribute to business objectives. This could cascade down to teams and individuals, so everyone is aware of how their responsibilities affect success.

The company could also take a leaf out of Airbnb’s book.

Like Audi, Airbnb ran a politically-charged Super Bowl ad – but its ad was in line with the company’s brand values and didn’t compromise its integrity. Airbnb’s #WeAccept campaign sends a strong message: “No matter where you’re from, who you love or worship, we all belong.” And it marks a commitment by the company to provide short-term housing for 10,000 people over the next five years. These initiatives were well under way before Super Bowl Sunday.

Where Audi went wrong was in promoting a value that the company itself doesn’t fully embody. Armed with social media, consumers were quick to point that out to millions of others. In doing so, they eroded the brand’s reputation of trust and sincerity – the complete opposite of what the Super Bowl ad was meant to achieve.

* Julia Ahlfeldt is a certified customer experience professional

The big take-out: To prevent reputational damage, companies need to align the image their marketing projects with the values they actually embody.

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