Suarez and the Problem of Perception

Suarez and the Problem of Perception

7th July 2014

Have you been enjoying the World Cup? I’m lucky in that I quite enjoy football, so my husband torturing me with watching every live match has been quite fun (yes, even the ones that start at 11pm). We’ve had goal-line technology (with its own controversies), the magic spray (I think it’s more of a mousse, personally) and plenty of squeaky-bum moments already – the Netherlands winning their game against Mexico in the dying minutes? Poor Chile going out on penalties against Brazil? It’s been great, compared to some recent tournaments which by comparison now seem rather dull. (And yes, I still get nervous watching penalties, despite the certainty of not having to endure a shoot-out involving England, AGAIN.)

It’s also been a great World Cup for marketers. It’s been a truly social competition, both on and off the pitch. A Greek Facebook page set up suggesting that Katsouranis, who helped lead them to their Euro win in 2004, should not start the game against Costa Rica, garnered over 100,000 likes by the time their game kicked off on Sunday.

The page on Facebook requesting that Katsouranis didn't play against Costa Ria
The page on Facebook requesting that Katsouranis didn’t play against Costa Rica
However what I really want to talk about, is this:

Did you guess what it is yet?

How about now? (Incidentally these ads have now been taken down according to the BBC.)

As much as I’d love to do a post covering some of my favourite Suarez-bite-related memes, I’m not going to. Instead, what I wanted to talk to you about is customer perception. And more football.


Bas and I exchanged a few tweets last week about other shocking World Cup incidents, compared to the Suarez bite. There’s plenty to choose from in this tournament alone (so I don’t need to talk about *that* headbutt), so why haven’t we heard more about these? Why is all the focus on Suarez?

” All Insane, All On Purpose”

I give you a selection of some of the many tasty incidents  we’ve seen:

Clint Dempsey gets his nose broken

Alex Song elbows an opponent in the back

Mario Balotelli’s “Ninja” Jump

Claudio Marchisio’s red card for a dangerous tackle

If we rate these on a scale of bad to worst with The Bite, where worst could cause serious injury or potentially end someone’s career (I’m sure we’ve all seen tackles that ended in a broken leg, or a player never kicking a ball again), The Bite is probably at the lower end of the scale. Yes it’s nasty, yes it’s shocking and it has no place on a football pitch. But why did it earn Suarez a ban for 9 months from internationals and for 4 months from any football related activity, whereas the other perpetrators have gotten away relatively scott-free for other dangerous incidents?

This is where perception comes in.


The part that’s most relevant to us as marketers is the second definition above – “the way in which something is regarded, understood, or interpreted” as this is what pertains to customers and their perception of the brands that we work with. Customer perception has its very own definition:

A marketing concept that encompasses a customer’s impression, awareness and/or consciousness about a company or its offerings. Customer perception is typically affected by advertising, reviews, public relations, social media, personal experiences and other channels. Source

And this is the crux of the matter. For Suarez, is our view (as the consumer) harsher because he’s done this twice before? Is it made worse for those of us who have watched his club career recently and seen it also blighted by bans for racism and reports of diving? While he’s since come out and apologised to Chiellini, did the initial protestations, denials and claims of “a witchhunt” from the Uruguayan camp result in a harsher punishment?

The Problem for Brands

A customer’s view of our brand can be influenced by the things they see on social media, or hear about from other people, as well as their own personal experience. In the absence of their own dealings with you, their opinion may be entirely based on feedback from others. The kicker here is that in this case, the things they are hearing might not be completely true, or even fair. I’m sure we all have experience of dealing with customers who may have been completely unreasonable in their demands, who don’t see that you may be doing all you can to deliver a good experience, who then go off and bad-mouth you to all and sundry. That’s the world we live in and why brands can pay such big bucks for reputation management.


Think Burberry – a few years back this classic British brand was known as a “chav” brand despite beautiful marketing and products. You could argue this was an unfair label and it’s taken the brand some time to successfully shake off this image which damaged sales. Their use of social media and marketing has had a huge part to play in this revival.

What about Skoda? In the UK at least, going back to when I was young, it’s the sort of car you’d be laughed at for owning. Popular culture was filled with jokes about Skodas. Some of this might have been snobbery, but nonetheless it put you off owning one. They’ve managed to turn it around spectacularly – their cars now win all sorts of awards for customer satisfaction and while some of this might be down to them actually building better cars, nobody would know about them without marketing. Specifically, something like this:

Not only did I think it was one of the best adverts I’d ever seen, but it made me rethink what I thought of the brand. Plus, who isn’t won over by a car made of cake?

Dominos suffered a major PR disaster when a video of two staff members from a US franchise doing rather unpleasant things to food went viral on YouTube. It took only a few days to do catastrophic damage to the brand and their initial plan for how to respond didn’t help. In trying to avoid adding fuel to the fire, they came across as uncommunicative. So they tried something else and responded with a video of their own, featuring their CEO apologising and thanking the wider social community for flagging up what happened. Since then Dominos has worked hard to use social media to its advantage, even dedicating an entire microsite to social feedback on their new recipe.

What Now?

The point I want to make is that customer perception isn’t always right (compared to what we as brand owners might think it should be) and it’s often not fair. While social media can often exacerbate this situation and create mountains from proverbial molehills, it can also be one of the best ways to moving forward if you find yourself with this problem. When it comes to working out what that way forward should be, plan now. Don’t wait for a crisis to plan how you’re going to deal with it.

Work with your PR, branding, social and customer service teams amongst others to come up with potential scenarios and how you’ll manage them as a brand. Establish what your brand personality and tone of voice will be, if you haven’t already. In a sticky situation will you deny everything as Suarez did initially? Will you get senior figures talking to your customers trying to build trust like Dominos? Can you use quirkiness and charm like Skoda? Or will you focus instead on telling the story you want customers to hear, like Burberry?

Utilising social media listening tools and sentiment analysis can help you track the impact of your response, as can reaching out to key customers or influencers familiar with your brand – they’ll be able to tell you if what you’re doing is resonating in the right way. Having a Plan B in case Plan A doesn’t work is probably a smart move.

While Suarez and his PR team have a huge job ahead of them to restore his reputation, they can hold out hope that it is possible, particularly given that underneath it all, he’s a great player. Anyone who can remember the aftermath of David Beckham’s sending off at France 1998 where he became the most hated man in Britain to his rise to a status of national treasure knows that anything is possible. It can be for your brands too. I leave you with my favourite response to The Bite:


Written By
Arianne Donoghue is the Paid Media Development Manager at Epiphany. Having started off her digital career client side over a decade ago, Arianne has worked for both agencies and brands in-house, specialising in all things paid search. She is now back agency side supporting on biddable media digital strategy. You...
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