GAME framework applied to face masks and brand communications

This article was written for the August edition of the BOSS/MAKER Times newsletter, aimed at a corporate audience. As the theme of this newsletter is the future of communications, and face masks are a symbolic communication, I am also sharing it with you. The figural event in communications is the ongoing Silent War and collapse of the corrupt legacy media; this is a related matter deserving attention.

Yesterday I collected my younger daughter from the airport, and it was a bit of a jolt to see her in a face mask for the first time. It has been nearly six months since I last saw her, due to being on opposite sides of Europe throughout this lockdown and quarantine period.

The airline had sent me this email prior to her flight:

Face Masks On Flights

We live in a world of polarised opinion, where some of us perceive a vast political power grab using a manufactured pandemic panic. Face masks are a symbol of obedience and submission to illegitimate and criminal authority. Others see the world differently, considering face masks an altruistic inconvenience that serves a wider public health interest.

I fall into the former camp, and for me this enthusiastic positive endorsement of wearing masks was a brand catastrophe for the airline. It crossed a line: away from being a neutral announcement of a sad necessity (which they have been coerced into performing), and towards an implicit endorsement of a political outlook that I profoundly disagree with.

This is an isolated example of a wider issue. How should brands communicate with their customers in a world where the customer base has become politically polarised, and the context is outside of historical precedent? A simple framework — called “GAME” — can help us in any communication, corporate or otherwise.

GAME stands for Goals, Audience, Medium, Expression. Let us run through these in turn, using face masks as a case study.

• • •

The goal of any corporate communication is tied to both a business processes (e.g. marketing, support) as well as a brand image and its values. Enterprises are being asked to communicate with their customers about highly emotive and sometimes unpleasant changes in our world. There are few upside rewards for doing this (like extra sales), but clear downside risks (like alienating longstanding customers).

Face masks are (rightly or wrongly) being positioned as a safety issue: they are not a feature of the service itself. The Wizz email here is a category error: it is presenting masks as good news, as if they are now offering free drinks onboard. But it does give us a clue as to what a clearer goal might be in many of our communications. To borrow an idea from safety engineering we must make “bad experiences sufficiently rare”.

A bad experience for the customer here would be to turn up to the airport being unaware of the rules on wearing masks on flights. So the first step is to understand the nature of our communications goal: to make peak experiences possible (“upgrade to first class!”), average experiences better (“most punctual airline”), or bad experiences rarer (“avoid being denied boarding due to no mask”). The balance of these has shifted due to events in the world.

• • •

This leads us naturally to the next part of GAME: the audience. We now have an extra dimension to our market segmentation, which could be characterised along the lines of how “awake” that part of the customer base is to the geopolitical changes we are immersed in. The risk here is pandering to the extremes, and forgetting that most of the public and market are in the middle.

We have seen an implosion of several brands, like Nike and NFL. They have aligned themselves to extreme left-wing causes like Black Lives Matter that are unpopular with the majority of their customer base. It is the right of any brand to align itself to any cause, but in the present circumstances it is most unwise to align to any institution or activity that may be tainted with corruption or violence.

Conversely, we have seen brands like Goya Foods align themselves to Patriot causes, and reap sales rewards in an “anti-boycott”. This is wonderful for Goya, but is not necessarily a replicable business strategy for most enterprises. You might create a temporary false sense of demand that is unrelated to the actual market dynamic for your product. Not everyone can be a totem of liberty!

A new audience “super-segmentation” might see the world through the lenses of the “wide awake”, “the awakening”, “the asleep”, and “the comatose”. The ratios of these are shifting daily, and shock events like Obamagate prosecutions may alter them suddenly. Each enterprise’s customer base will have a different mix, and the job of the marketer is to stay at or just ahead of where the customers are.

Using Wizz again as an example, “Yes to masks!” appeals to the “comatose” segment. Conversely, “We hate masks but have to make you wear one” might endear the awakened, but would scare off the majority to remain asleep. The enlightened brand could explain the need for masks, but add “for now…” to acknowledge the temporary nature, thus reassuring the awakening that masks are not desired for their own sake.

• • •

This takes us to the next part of GAME: the medium. As I stood outside of arrivals I noticed several airline crews pass by wearing face masks. Some airlines have chosen to put their logos on custom masks. So the “medium” of their communication is a mask itself. As McLuhan famously told us, “the medium is the message”, and if you choose to communicate via the mask it is a powerful endorsement of mask wearing.

This stores up a brand catastrophe for the future, with endless pictures of your staff not just wearing neutral masks under duress, but proudly endorsing crimes against humanity. It is one thing to colour coordinate the masks with the uniform, quite another to but your full brand equity into slave muzzles.

Even within the “ordinary” print and online media, I have noticed many brands unnecessarily updating all their promotional material to include pictures of people wearing masks. For example, this maker of fine leather goods has a completely unnecessary mask as its landing page. It is more like an advert for a Cult of Covered Faces than for elegant protection for expensive electronics.

Mask Branding

• • •

The final part of our GAME is the expression of the message. With Wizz, we have a poorly-fitting mask, a slight grin, and an enthusiastic endorsement of the situation. Is this really the brand image they want? “Badly implemented safety feature treated with lack of seriousness.” Contrast this with the signage from the airport itself:

Airport Face Covering Sign

By using a pictographic expression, the airline could have distanced itself and its employees from mask wearing. It would have been a sign to awake customers that they aren’t keen on masks, without having to make an overt and controversial statement against them. Conscious choices of language, design, and symbology can tell a very different story. Resistance to authoritarianism can be signalled in subtle and plausibly deniable ways.

• • •

I have used this GAME framework in many professional consulting engagements over many years. I hope these ideas not only give you help in dealing with customer messaging during the present turmoil, but also provide useful at tackling situations you may face in future. The masks will all be gone soon enough, but doubtless there will be new changes and challenges requiring novel approaches to communications in the future.

As nobody in the commercial world takes free content seriously, there is a modest charge to receive the BOSS/MAKER Times newsletter. This also gives you access to a BOSS/MAKER Community discussion forum. This forum is for those who are “awake” and carrying organisational responsibilities. It helps you to share information and provide mutual support through difficult times.

There is an Anglo-Dutch slant since Ronald Heister and myself are respectively from The Netherlands and Britain, but the content is of interest to everyone everywhere. The about to be released newsletter covers a framework to focus management attention in a criss, and anticipates what 2021 might bring.