Why the Ashley Madison hack has done amazing things for the brand

First published in Marketing Magazine 21st July 2015

The Ashley Madison hack is fascinating, says Justin Basini, co-founder and CEO at ClearScore, as it raises interesting questions about morality, marketing and privacy.

The Ashley Madison attack is the juiciest of all hacks so far perpetrated. This is not millions of dry boring credit card details only interesting to fraudsters. No, this is the details of 37m people who have, or want to have, affairs. Their details, including names, photos and even sexual fantasies could soon be up for public consumption.The group responsible for the hacking, the so-called ‘ImpactTeam’, have pitched this as a moral battle with them in the role of hero and Ashley Madison as the villains. The next few weeks will be fascinating to watch as the moral battle ebbs and flows.

Following the boost in brand awareness, the next test will be whether the consumer proposition is powerful enough to overcome brand distrust

As the morality play progresses, there is also a marketing war going on and it is being fought over three main fields of battle: brand awareness, consumer proposition and trust.

Every cheating cloud

The hack has done amazing things for the Ashley Madison brand. Previously a slightly illicit brand, now millions more people have heard of it and even better understand its offer.

If the hacked data is exposed to all there will also be millions of current users, lapsed users and suspicious spouses desperate to find out whether they or their partner has been exposed as a cheater. The publicity means Ashley Madison the brand gets an awareness boost and first interaction for “free”.

Following the boost in brand awareness, the next test will be whether the consumer proposition is powerful enough to overcome brand distrust.

What’s clear, whether you approve or not, is a platform which makes cheating more accessible is an attractive consumer proposition for some. But can it overcome the fact that any right-minded individual will now distrust the brand to keep their secrets?

Acceptable risk

In our world now of ubiquitous Tweeting, Facebooking and data in the cloud, I reckon for many the hack won’t make a jot of difference. They will continue to sign up in their millions and take their chances.

Once the acute coverage has died down, consumer irrationality will take over and they will conclude that Ashley Madison must have learnt its lesson and now be more secure and less hack prone. For lots of people, the power of the proposition will trump any brand distrust.

Of course, there is also the possibility that this could tank the brand

Of course, there is also the possibility that this could tank the brand. So I bet in the back rooms of Avid Media, the owners of Ashley Madison, they are already hatching a plan to rebrand and use the power of increased awareness of the proposition to launch afresh. Surely this contingency planning would only be sensible?

Criminal conscience

And finally what of the hackers? If you believe in their moral cause, then you should hope that they are pausing and thinking again about breaching the privacy of millions of not-so-innocent consumers. They may have the data but they don’t need to expose it.

You might hope if you want to see the end of a platform for cheating that they should be planning a denial of service attack to stop the Ashley Madison service from actually working.

This would be a much better way to achieve their aims but I suspect that really they don’t give a crap and just want to prove, yet again, that almost no IT system is hack-proof even those with the most salacious of personal information on them.

Whatever side you take, moral or marketing, and I hope you’ll share them here, there is no doubt that how you handle the worst of disaster situations, both looking for threat and opportunity, is in our hyper-connected world a must-do rather than a should-do activity for all marketers.

ENTER THE ENGAGEMENT WORLD

Tony Langham, CEO of Lansons Communications, recently contributed an essay the Marketing Magazine supplement on PR. We chatted about the increasing need for integration between externally facing departments which I think is the future model of marketing and communications. Tony was kind enough to include some of my thoughts in his article….

Enter the Engagement World

The days of standalone corporate PR departments may be numbered, but their distinct function will remain essential even within companies’ merged communications and marketing operations, writes Tony Langham of Lansons Communications

by

Tony Langham, Lansons Communications

First published in Marketing Magazine, October 15th 2010

In the next year, many of the remaining standalone big-brand PR and corporate communica tions functions will be absorbed into marketing departments, while those that remain separate will be much smaller than before. Some of this is driven by recession, but more is driven by a wider re struc ture of the marketing services industry that is gathering pace.

In the past couple of months, Marketing has covered restruc tures at a diverse range of brands and companies, including USA Today, TUI Travel, Kraft, Dyson, HMV Group, Simple and The Co-operative. In future, marketing departments themselves may well transform or disappear, as organi sa tions move to a completely integ rated approach to stakeholder communication and engagement.

The drivers of this shift are clear. As Justin Basini, marketing guru and former Procter & Gamble mark eter, says: ‘In an increasingly transparent world, all externally focused functions need to be work ing lock-step together, as the con sumer can see through the cracks.’

He argues that this can be achieved by forcing closer collabor ation between brand, marketing, corporate communications, investor relations and CSR.

Chris van der Kuyl, chief execu tive of Brightsolid, which recently acquired Friends Reunited, adds: ‘Services like Twitter have comp letely blurred the lines between PR, customer service and market ing. There is no room, even in the biggest businesses, for these communications teams not to have an integrated approach.’

At NS&I, where media relations has been integrated in mar comms for nearly 10 years, head of market ing and communi cations Tim Mack notes that the priority is now maximising ‘owned’ and ‘earned’ communica tions over ‘paid-for’.

In this environment, BGL Group director of acquis itions David Lundholm argues that strong leadership is vital, asking: ‘Why wouldn’t brands centralise all their marcomms?’

Across Lansons’ 100 clients, the unification of PR and natural SEO has been the biggest driver of integ ration so far. As Ian Williams, Mon­eysupermarket’s recently departed communications director, says: ‘We started working with the SEO team on a weekly, then daily basis, then moved next to them. The next step was to merge the teams.’

Many PR big-hitters believe the complete merging of PR into mark eting leaves gaps. Former Aon Communications head and consultant Paul Atkinson argues that integrated internal and exter nal communications to support change management require specialist skills. Another communi­cations director is more direct, claiming that ‘many marketing directors still don’t get PR’ and often find media relations challeng ing as they can’t control it. Another adds that market ing directors are rarely as experienced in handling reputational issues.

Lundholm also raises the problems of confidentiality within a single function, recognising the need to balance social media know-how with skill in handling sensitive issues.

Within FTSE-250 and FTSE-100 companies, we see less of a drive to complete integration as chairmen, chief executives and boards still value focused, discreet high-level counsel. The question is how big will these specialist, stand alone corporate communications functions be?

In the longer term, there is good reason to believe that marketing services and customer communica tion silos will disappear to be replaced by cross-discipline func tions like customer engagement.

Some question whether this is a step too far. Skipton Building Soci ety head of marketing Rachel Ramsden says: ‘Whether you’re called “Cust­omer Engagement” or “Marketing”, you’re likely to be doing the same things.’ She warns against the dangers of confusion and blurred responsibility in bigger functions.

Williams is more philos ophical, observing that the trend to integ rate may be cyclical. ‘It’s fashion able to merge the teams now, as we start to understand communica tion in the content/SEO world and as marketing people learn to deal with earned and influenced media,’ he says. However, he sees no reason why the teams won’t move apart again in the future.

My bet is on a more radical longer-term change, with smaller corporate communications func tions remaining at quoted comp anies and cross-discipline ones (customer engagement, govern ment relations, brand manage ment, distribution) replacing PR – and marketing – elsewhere.

The question is which tradition al background – marketing or PR – has the requisite mix of skills to head the new functions.

Tony Langham, chief executive, Lansons Communications