Commonly known as tone-deafness, amusia is an inability to distinguish differences in musical pitch.   Tone-deafness is also a term that applies to those who are oblivious to public sentiment, opinion, or taste. Think of it as social amusia. 

At best, social tone-deafness might just result in a failed attempt at connection.  At worst it can end up as a public relations nightmare.

Take for example when wokeness came to the forefront of America’s cultural landscape and a number of companies jumped on the woke bandwagon.

Houston, We Got a Problem

Before 2017, anyone outside the Black American culture, had never heard of woke.  Fast forward 4 years and, in an attempt to stay relevant, many companies began doing a lot of woke washing.   Which also meant a lot of woke washing blunders that ranged from embarrassing to downright mortifying.

For instance, Hyundai wanted to be associated with being environmental conscious and ran a commercial introducing its fuel cell car, the Hyundai ix35.  The ad called “Pipe Job” was about a man trying to commit suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning with a Hyundai ix35.  He failed because the car’s design is so environmental conscious that tailpipe emits only water vapor.  In fact, the exhaust is so clean you can’t even poison yourself with carbon dioxide.  Hard to imagine the backlash could have gotten any worse.  But then along came a blogpost that received an overwhelming amount of media attention. It was written by a woman whose father committed suicide in the same way with a Hyundai car and she included the suicide note.  Hyundai pulled the ad, but the damage was already done.  The blogpost had gone viral.  Even though Hyundai withdrew the ad, it’s still on the internet and continues to rack up clicks.

Similarly, attempting to ride the wave of media attention without finding out what that wave is about has also gotten some companies into a lot of trouble.

Look Before You Leap

In an effort to stay relevant DiGiornos hijacked a trending hashtag and used it to sell their frozen pizzas.  They seized #WhyIStayed based on a high volume of appearances on the internet.  Unfortunately, the hashtag had to do with the suspension of NFL player Ray Rice for beating his wife.  #WhyIStayed was a collection of domestic violence survivor stories.  As you can imagine, there was an avalanche of blowback.  DiGiornos apologized. For how long?  A very, very long time.

Basically, it all comes down to tone-deafness.  Companies that unwittingly use messaging like the above examples not only come across as out of touch, they also often are seen as thoughtless and insensitive.

Name That Tune

Burger King launched its #FeelYourWay campaign to mark Mental Awareness month.  As part of the campaign, they sold products such as a “Blue Meal” and the “Pissed Meal”.   Unsurprisingly, their effort to be in sync with mental health ended up fueling a public uproar along with a slew of angry tweets.

But the cringe-worthy award goes to Spirit Airline for the email it sent to customers during the COVID pandemic. The subject line read, “Never a better time to fly”.

The thing about tone deafness is that people who are tone deaf often don’t know they are tone deaf.  While the human brain is able to perceive differences in tone, there’s a dissonance between registering a wrong note and the person’s awareness of the wrong note.  The only way to be aware of tone deafness is if someone else listens that person sing and tells them. The same is true for brand messaging.

Did these companies not run their messaging past public relations or do a couple focus groups to check for tone-deafness?  One would think those kinds of safeguards saves companies from the cost of a repairing a corporate image.

Train Your Ear

Clinical amusia can’t be cured. But fortunately, the majority of people who sound tone-deaf don’t have a disorder and can do exercises to improve pitch perception and matching.  In the same way, we can apply these  exercises within the context of social tone-deafness.  Pitch matching is frequently used in a singing exercise that requires listening carefully to a single note and singing it back in the same pitch.  Singers enlist someone or use a tape recorder to gauge their accuracy.  In the case of market messaging, one can get feedback in getting feedback from friends, colleagues, or informal/formal focus groups.  

Ultimately the best way to be in tune with your brands audience is to keep in touch with your customers.  Listen to them.  Be a part of the conversation.  Not only will you be in tune with each other, but it very well may lead to an alchemy that creates a unique new song.