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Why brands need to learn that silence can be golden

12 July 2018
Three cartoons with tape over their mouths | Why brands need to learn that silence can be golden | Neon

It’s April 18th, 1930. Good Friday. A few months earlier, The Times had published the first of its famous crosswords, and in just a few short weeks, Yorkshire-born Amy Johnson will become the first woman to successfully complete a solo flight from England to Australia. Today though, the biggest news is, well, nothing…

“Good evening,” the BBC news reporter says at the start of the 8:45 pm update. “Today is Good Friday. There is no news.”

It was the first (and last) time those words were uttered during a news report, and for the rest of the 15-minute broadcast piano music played out before your regularly scheduled programming resumed.

How times have changed.

Thanks to 24-hour rolling news, the dawn of the internet and the continued growth of social media, the idea that we could pass even a single second, never mind a whole day, without any news seems ludicrous. We live in noisy, chaotic times. Everybody’s talking and the sound of silence has been replaced by the challenge of chatter.

Tim the Talking Tomato Ketchup Bottle

Businesses looking to gain traction online face a bigger challenge than most.

A brand is an intangible thing and being social with something that can’t socialise (because it doesn’t exist in any real human form) makes no sense. You wouldn’t go home and talk to your bottle of tomato ketchup, so why would you do it on Twitter?

But marketing is the art of making brands seem human, approachable and friendly. It’s not just tomato ketchup; it’s your mate down the pub, the friend you haven’t seen for a while, the bloke down your road you say hello to every now and then. “Alright, Tim?” you say to the ketchup bottle. “Alright mate,” it says back.

No you’re not drunk, you’re just engaging.

Brands have found a few ways to encourage this engagement: indulging in a bit of brand-to-brand banter (as Burger King and Budweiser have done recently), jumping in on popular hashtags or finding the moments that are most important to their audience and getting involved in the conversations around them.

It doesn’t matter if the conversation has any relevance to the brand in question; all that matters is saying something – anything! – to seem current and human.

Predictably, this approach has led to a few infamous moments brands would rather forget. Pepsi’s tone-deaf Kendell Jenner advert, Bisquick asking for questions about its product during one of the 2016 Presidential Election debates, and Facebook using the hurricanes in Puerto Rico to promote its new VR functionality were disastrous attempts to connect with issues consumers are interested in.

They failed because the issues being discussed simply aren’t relevant to the brands discussing them. The commentary, therefore, comes across as disingenuous and, in some cases, flat-out offensive. The only reason for the brand to get involved is to gain awareness, generate engagement and ultimately try to sell their product.

Tim the Talking Tomato Ketchup Bottle would never butt into your kitchen conversation about that sofa you want to buy, so why would @timtomatoketchup do it on Twitter?

Enjoy the Silence

Even when such efforts don’t result in flat-out failure, they don’t always guarantee success either.

The noise of the internet is relentless and getting louder every day. WordPress estimates that 77.3 million new posts were uploaded to blogs they host during June 2018, with October 2017 representing the platform’s peak: 91.8 million posts.

Meanwhile, 35 million people are said to update Facebook per day, 500 million tweets are said to be sent per day and 95 million images are said to be shared on Instagram per day.

The internet is an unending ocean of content; do you, Tim the Talking Tomato Ketchup Bottle, really think you have something worthwhile to say about Jeremy Corbyn throwing shade in the latest Prime Minister’s Questions? Or the latest goings-on between Sam and Georgia on Love Island?

Even your content does win engagement, is it coming from people who may actually buy your product? Does it translate to any tangible benefits? And if not, is it really worth the resource needed to create it?

None of this is to say that brands shouldn’t create blogs or tweets around these issues, but there’s a need to understand what you should and shouldn’t discuss. Is the topic relevant? Is it very serious? Does your brand have any kind of real authority to speak about it?

Creativity can come into play here. There’s no natural link between the English national football team and tomato ketchup, but tomato ketchup is red like the St George’s Cross, so Tim the Talking Tomato Ketchup Bottle can definitely mine the connection there.

However, he can’t really speak with any kind of authority on governmental scandals, trouble in the NHS or Donald Trump, and there are very few benefits to doing so.

In a nutshell…

It might be fun to join in that latest meme, and it might even feel justified if a few retweets and likes come your way. But brands must really weigh up the pros and cons and understand what the true value of commenting is.

Sometimes words are easy to waste, silence is golden and no news really is good news.

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