It was only a couple of weeks ago when Zara proved that cultural illiteracy is bad business. The Spanish-based clothing and accessories brand released a kid's striped pajama top with what was taken by many to look like a Jewish star.

The product hit the Web, people hit the ceiling, and Zara's PR team hit the road to make apologizes and mend fences. It would have been easier had the company not experienced something similar in 2007 when one of its bags sported what seemed like swastikas.

Now, such a short time after, Urban Outfitters decided to do its own "edgy" campaign that edged it into the realm of rolling eyes and disbelief. The company released a Kent State sweatshirt that looked blood-spattered for $129. For those who don't remember, Kent State was the location where Ohio National Guard troops shot and killed four students on campus during a protest.

Yup, it was just another tasteless campaign by some marketing people who ran amok. The company apologized and tried to explain that the "red stains are discoloration from the original shade of the shirt and the holes are from natural wear and fray."

That bought no sympathy from Kent State University, which reportedly said that the "item is beyond poor taste and trivializes a loss of life that still hurts the Kent State community today."

Why do campaigns like these from Urban Outfitters and Zara aim their marketing machines straight into the white light of an oncoming train and then step on the gas? There are likely many reasons, but I'd argue one of the most important is the lack of integration between marketing and any other division of the company.

I've seen this first hand inside companies and from the perspective of a consultant. All too often, marketing people come up with an idea and fall in love with it. I can remember cases were they dallied with fanciful but empty phrases because they were literally unable to explain in the simplest terms what their companies actually did. Other times, they indulged in escapades that made them feel good but that will ill-conceived and which ignored basics of market demographics and an understanding of customers.

Marketing has a bigger job to fill than generating material that wins awards and does little or nothing for the company footing the bills. You don't want it walled off. Here are 4 ways to avoid it:

  • Create cross-functional product teams. Don't have product marketing people go off into a corner to generate ideas or create campaigns. Let them work with engineers, communications people, manufacturing, finance, and customer service, so you have a more informed approach to activities.
  • Provide cross-training. Cross-functional teams are fine, but you're even better off if you get the marketing people out from behind their desks and over with other parts of the company. Let them solve customers' problems, understand the challenges of logistics, and get a practical feeling for what else happens in the company. Creating new experiences can help ultimately shake loose some creativity.
  • Make everyone build a business case. Whether they write copy for a direct mail campaign or work with an outside agency to build the next national ad campaign, have marketing people write a short but well-reasoned business case for what they plan. That step will force them to think outside just marketing terms and consider the broader implications of what they do.
  • Think like an outsider. As part of the business case, add in a perception of outside people. Let them walk around in the public's shoes for a moment, get distance from their work, and see how someone else might see it. Some empathy for others inside and outside the company is a fine trait when a major part of your job is not to track mud on the public carpet.
Published on: Sep 16, 2014