Every brand has gone through its fair share of ups and downs. Most of the time, PR and communications teams work overtime to move beyond their beleaguered pasts to rebuild the brand's image. However, with consumers now more interested in a brand's history, combined with living in the golden era of content, difficult pasts can sometimes be hard to leave behind. Take, for example, content power house Netflix which has been making waves with its documentary series.

Earlier this year, the brand released the documentary of Downfall: The Case Against Boeing . While entertaining as a documentary, not long after did the brand make headlines again after the unfortunate crash of the China Eastern Airlines plane involving a Boeing carrier. The documentary explores the reason behind the crashes of two Boeing 737 MAX that killed 346 people. The interviewees of the documentary portray the brand as an ambitious and greedy one looking to beat its major competitor Airbus. Ultimately it concludes with the departure of its CEO.

Meanwhile, just recently, Netflix shared that it was putting Abercrombie & Fitch in the hot seat with the launch of " White Hot: The Rise & Fall of Abercrombie & Fitch ". Interestingly, A&F took the proactive stance in releasing a statement in response to Netflix's documentary  given its ups and downs with the press and its leadership history full of controversy around a sexed-up image full of racy ads, catalogs and topless in-store male models. The brand said,  "While the problematic elements of that era have already been subject to wide and valid criticism over the years, we want to be clear that they are actions, behaviors and decisions that would not be permitted or tolerated at the company now," it said. 

Much of these "problematic elements" had occurred under the previous leadership of former CEO Mike Jeffries. In 2006, Jeffries was quoted saying that the  brand targets the cool kids  and the attractive all-American kid, and admitted to the brand being "exclusionary". The brand has also been accused of racist behaviour in its hiring practices during his leadership.

With consumer interest on real brand stories piquing, it is clear that Netflix has landed on a goldmine with some of these documentary series. While entertaining for consumers, the situation can however, leave any PR professionals a little uncomfortable. After all, no one really wants to readdress drudgeries of the past they’d rather leave dead in the ground.

In a conversation with MARKETING-INTERACTIVE , Pamela Tor Das, managing director, Singapore at TEAM LEWIS said it is inevitable that the past will creep back into the present. When caught in such a situation, she says brands have two options to deal with the issue - to live in the shadows or to take it as an opportunity to turn things around and highlight how they have become stronger and better. The latter is what A&F attempted to do with its immediate statement. “Being bold to admit what could have been done better and setting the record straight will go a long way in regaining consumer confidence and positive brand resonance. What is critical though, is to walk the talk as the brand is thrust back into the limelight,” said Tor Das. 

The documentary genre despite being a mature industry with funding, has found mainstream success elusive except for a few like the Discovery Channel and National Geographic. Commenting on the rise of the genre, Vijayaratnam Tharumartnam, chief communications officer at Berjaya Corporation shared that Netflix has made documentaries sexy, and by making them about real events, the platform has also built gravitas for the platform as a legitimate news source. “This is unprecedented because there was always a clear demarcation between entertainment and serious content. As a consequence, Netflix can now have a serious impact on brands, both positively and negatively,” said Tharumartnam.

For instance, Formula 1: Drive to Survive was one documentary that introduced an entirely new audience to a sport and made it sexy, reality TV style. On the flip side, “the drivers and the sport has found Netflix's titillating approach to denigrate the sport and make it seem staged”, explained  Tharumartnam.

It's a double-edged sword but not necessarily a bad one. One thing's for sure, Netflix may be ad free but they're certainly not brand free! 

However, when caught in a negative situation, the best thing a brand can do is get involved as early as possible in the production process and "partner", if there's a fit, adviced Tharumartnam. “Otherwise, you have two choices - fight or do a mea culpa . And in the case of A&F, that seems to have worked. I think they will ultimately benefit by pivoting to show that they've evolved,” he said.

At the end of the day, brands must remember that consumer cynicism is at an all-time high where less than half of brands are seen as trustworthy, said a recent Havas Meaningful Brands 2021 Report. Currently, only 34% of consumers think companies are transparent about their commitment and promises, and 75% of brands could disappear and be easily replaced.

“The Netflix documentaries certainly raise the profile and awareness of the brands featured – be it for all the right and wrong reasons,” said Kenny Yap, managing director, Havas Singapore. He added that while companies can’t change the past, they definitely can make a meaningful difference today and for the future – one that is committed and authentic.

As such, brands must leverage the buzz from these documentaries, and should see it as an opportunity to put the spotlight on their meaningful initiatives, Yap said.

Related articles: 
Abercrombie & Fitch releases statement on 'problematic' Netflix documentary trailer
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