By Ishola Ayodele
George Bernard Shaw once masterfully remarked, “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place”. Many a time, organisations, brands and Leaders talk to themselves while thinking they are communicating with the public. They see the world from their own perspectives forgetting that their audiences are living being with the ability to think and the power to make decisions.
Communication in this 21st century has gone beyond fluency or mere rhetoric. The internet has democratized communication and we are no longer in the era of ‘I talk, you listen.’ This is why Corporations and brands are finding it very hard to move audience from where they (the audience) are to where they (the brands & Political leaders) want them (the audience) to be.
Therefore, Brands and Corporations must not just communicate but do so in a way that produce the desired message that they want to pass through to their audience and not misconstrued or misinterpreted.
Let me use the Shoprite miscommunication and the Bud Light Beer’s brand positioning to drive home my point.
In a bid to comply with the reporting requirements of the South African regulatory authorities, Shoprite issued a statement on the 3rd of August, 2020. Part of the statement reads, “Retail Supermarkets Nigeria Limited may be classified as a discontinued operation when ShopRite reports its results for the year. Any further updates will be provided to the market at the appropriate time,”
This immediately led to widespread media report that Shoprite is “LEAVING” Nigeria.
“Shoprite says plans to LEAVE Nigeria” Businessday
“Why Shoprite is QUITTING Nigeria’s retail market’” Guardian
” Shoprite: Africa’s biggest supermarket considers PULLING OUT of Nigeria” BBC
“South African retail giant ShopRite says it may SELL ‘all or a majority stake’ in Nigeria business” CNN
“Shoprite is LEAVING Nigeria and here’s why” Pulse
“Shoprite’s owners to LEAVE Nigeria after 15 years” Nairametric
Shoprite had to issue another statement few hours later to debunk this notion of leaving Nigeria. Speaking on behalf of shoprite, the Country Director for Chastex Consult, Ini Archibong in a telephone conversation with the Vanguard newspaper said, “Shoprite is not leaving Nigeria. We only gave this opportunity to Nigeria investors to come in and also help drive our expansion plan in Nigeria. So we are not leaving.”
Bud Light Beer’s brand positioning
The American beer giant Budweiser produced a new beer for women called Bud Light Beer and in order to make it appealing to women they decided to position the beer as a brand for women who are bold and daring with a slogan which says “Up for Whatever” and backed it up with a twitter marketing campaign entitled #UpforWhatever
Budweiser thought that the slogan was a great communication. Unfortunately for them, not only were they not communicating what they wanted the audience to hear but were also inadvertently communicating what the audience didn’t want to hear. As a matter of fact they were insulting women and helping to promote sexual harassment.
There was massive public criticism of the company from activists, feminists and other influencers. The company was accused of creating a product that makes women vulnerable to rape and sexual abuse. The public outcry led to a call for boycott of the product especially on the social media. This boycott had adverse effect on the Bud Light brand launch.
And finally, the company bowed to pressure and withdrew the campaign.
Lessons For PR and Marketing Practitioners
1. The Curse of knowledge
This communication failure stemmed from the use of the phrase “Discontinued Operation.” This is what is known as ‘the curse of knowledge’ a phenomenon whereby an expert assumes that a popular/common concept in his/her field is widely understood by everyone else in the world. This is because the experts are so good at the topic and find it so simple that they can’t conceive that there is someone outside their field who doesn’t know or understand this concept.
In an investment conference in New York. An investor asked for an update on the company’s quality initiative. The production manager answered, “Our quality initiative is well underway. And quality continues to improve every single quarter” and concluded by giving statistics.
This was great except for the fact that while he was saying this, he moved his hand downward diagonally in front of his body. This gesture was of something declining.
After the investment conference, reporters and analysts posted negative references to the company, expressing concerns about the quality of the company’s products contrary to what the company’s statistics say.
This reporters and analysts misconception emanated from their understanding of the production manager’s gesture (a downward movement of the hand) but in actual fact the production manager’s gesture is correct technically. In manufacturing, quality is improving when the the number of defects per thousand units of production declines (hence the downward movement of the hand).
In the same vein, “Discontinued Operation” to Shoprite’s management may mean not entirely owned by parent company or to divest but to everyone else to discontinue Operation means to stop doing that business. Therefore, Shoprite is leaving Nigeria is the right interpretation of that report from the public’s perspective.
However, in reality Shoprite was saying they wanted to divest by allowing Nigerian investors to own part of the business as evident in an internal memo to their employees on the 31st of July, 2020 before the August 3rd, 2020 report which was published in the media.
Shoprite in the August 3rd report erroneously assumed we all understood what ‘Discontinued Operation’ meant. And that was their undoing
2. It is not what you say but what the audience hears that counts
I have said countless times and I will continue to say it, “It is not what you say but what the audience hears that determines their reaction to your communication.”
The theory of symbolic interactionism states that, “We do not react to what people say or do but to the interpretation of what they say or do.” Budweiser thought Up For Whatever means ‘bold and daring, ready to face any challenge’ but the audience interpreted it as saying the beer gets women drunk and vulnerable to sexual harassment.
The truth is that the audience’s interpretation is what they hear and that was what their thinking faculty responds to. The onus of understanding does not rest on the receiver but the sender of a message because if the arrow did not hit the bull’s eye we don’t blame the bull’s eye, we blame the archer.
This communication challenge is a wake up call for CEOs and brand custodians that it is high time they understood that communication is not part of the business, communication is the business. You cannot lead or sell without communicating. Communication is the bedrock of Business and governance. The earlier we accept this fact the better we succeed in business and leadership.
And it is in their own interest to make strategic communication part of the decision making process. Developing strategic communication capacity especially ‘Message Engineering’ or retaining and listening to an agency who does is critical to business survival in this 21st century.
Communication is not all about talking or sending messages. It is more about mind connection, a state where two or more minds clearly get the picture of what the other person is saying in their minds. They see what the speaker has seen. They feel what he/she is feeling. Therefore, the new challenge for brand custodians and business leaders is how to communicate in a way that their audience hears what they want them to hear and respond in the desired way in order to yield the desired results.
This type of communication doesn’t happen by accident, it is planted. Yes, planted like a seed because this 21st century audience is different. It lives in an age of information overload where there is more information than the time to process it and where the attention span becomes shorter by the day, “you now have less than 10 seconds to grab people’s attention” according to a study conducted in Canada by Microsoft Corp. Consequently, your communication must be laser sharp. This level of strategic communication cannot be achieved by thinking out of the box, you must get out of the box completely and this is what has led to the invention of a new scientific method of preparing communication called ‘message engineering.’ Message engineering is a new concept in Strategic Communication. You can engage me on this concept via firstname.lastname@example.org.
Here are few elements of message engineering.
Message fitting: The message must resonate with the audience. As you will relish your favourite food when it is prepared and dished in your preferred method, in the same vein a message must be prepared and presented in the way audience like to hear it.
Message implantation: Just as something is placed inside a human body in medical implantation, in the same vein communication experts have devised a scientific systemic process for implanting a message in such a way that it creates a feeling of ownership in the audience’s mind.
Message design: Knowing what to say is no longer enough in today’s web 2.0, you must know when, where, how to say it and most importantly why you are saying as well as why they should care to listen.
To wrap up,
Effective communication is not all about eloquence, talking, sending press releases or giving facts and figures. It is all about getting the audience to listen and share your meaning. The unfortunate problem is that most organisations and leaders are yet to accept this reality and understand how to make it happen.
This is because if your communication doesn’t provoke shared meaning with the target audience it won’t yield the desired result. Hence you are just talking not communicating. Consequently, Shoprite in the August 3rd statement and Budweiser were mere communication without communicating because they were talking to themselves while thinking they were communicating with the audience.
Ishola Ayodele is a specialist in ‘Message Engineer.’ He helps organisations, Brands and Leaders to communicate in a way that yields the desired result.
Published on Brandfit.