We need to be more proactive in dealing with our channel’s negative perception.
On Aug. 25, SHOWTIME aired the first episode On Becoming a God in Central Florida, starring Kirsten Dunst. The series is set in a small town near Orlando in 1992, and Dunst plays Krystal Stubbs, a minimum-wage water park employee, who lies, schemes and cons her way up the ranks of the cultish, multibillion-dollar pyramid scheme that drove her family to ruin in the first place.
The show’s premise is a satire of network marketers spreading the gospel of “you can have the lavish lifestyle, attain financial freedom and the American Dream.” The first five minutes of the first episode is packed with cringe-worthy network marketing stereotypes. In the opening scene, for example, Krystal’s husband, Travis, (played by Alexander Skarsgård) is on the couch listening to the first of many upline training cassette tapes on how to start your business. The camera then pans to several products in various areas of their home, all from the company he represents. “Dream a big dream,” says the narrator on the tape he is listening to. “There is a mighty and transcendent place where progress is inevitable….where the pursuit of happiness is a priority and a right to dream is a guarantee. That place is called America.” While listening, he cuts out his dream home and tacks it on his corkboard.
“The SHOWTIME series and its depiction of direct selling is something the industry should take seriously, but we shouldn’t overreact. If you overreact, there’s a risk that we create a perception that the show has hit a nerve or hit too close to home – that it’s revealing a ‘hidden truth,’ and that’s certainly not the case.” – Crayton Webb, Owner, CEO, Sunwest Communications
If the first three episodes of the 10-episode series are any like the seven to follow, it will provide naysayers enough network marketing meme clips to fill our social media channels for years to come.
“It’s not uncommon for Hollywood to dramatize and mock,” says Crayton Webb, Owner and CEO of Dallas-based Sunwest Communications, which represents several direct selling clients. “Kirsten Dunst certainly has a track record with projects she’s taken on previously, mocking both cheerleaders and pageants. Direct selling is in good company, and sometimes imitation can be a form of flattery.”
For the remaining episodes, there’s little doubt the show’s producers will create plotlines ripped from the headlines of direct selling companies that have been in the news the past few decades.
Take it Seriously, But Don’t Overreact
The SHOWTIME series is just the latest in a long list of high-profile perception challenges our channel has faced. Whether or not there’s such a thing as bad publicity has been a matter of various opinions for decades. There’s less disagreement, however, about whether a company should just ignore it and let sleeping dogs lie. “The series and its depiction of direct selling is something the industry should take seriously, but we shouldn’t overreact,” says Webb. “It may be wise for the industry not to take the show too seriously because it’s so over the top. If you overreact, there’s a risk that you create a perception that the show has hit a nerve or hit too close to home – that it’s revealing a ‘hidden truth,’ and that’s certainly not the case.”
Given the show is on a premium cable channel, the exact reach of the show is still up for debate, and Webb suspects the average viewer of the show who either has no experience as a direct seller or simply has a favorite product they routinely buy, isn’t likely to connect the show’s agenda and commentary with their favorite direct selling brand.
“Just like most Americans despise Congress but love their congressman, I think the same is true of direct selling,” he says. “Some consumers may be leery of network marketing, but they love their direct seller from whom they buy their favorite product. In other words, most consumers separate the industry from their favorite brand and product.”
It’s Important to be Prepared
A new direct selling representative, who is just getting his or her business up and running, may have concerns and questions about what they should say if prospects bring up the show or another example of their company or the distribution channel as a whole being the target of pop culture or media scrutiny. The smart approach by direct selling companies, says Webb, is to ensure their sales force isn’t caught off guard—especially in a selling situation—without any knowledge. That can breed distrust and resentment amongst the field. It also could inadvertently cause members of your sales force to express their surprise and fear very publicly on social media. The result is to cause a feeding frenzy on social and draw even more attention to the show.
The misunderstandings of our industry are sometimes rooted in truth. There are people who have behaved badly, and maybe we haven’t always corrected those bad behaviors quickly enough. We need to call out any bad actors; if we don’t it hurts everyone.
It’s a careful balance of ensuring your sales force is knowledgeable and aware, without alarming them. “You never want to be behind the eight ball when a crisis hits,” says Webb. “It’s critical to have a communications plan in place that provides a procedure for responding to questions from the field. Start flexing your communications muscle before the crisis hits and work to arm your salesforce with messages and media training so they can be accurate, persuasive communication ambassadors of your brand’s key messages.”
The Way Forward
It’s also important for our channel to continue to distance itself from any narratives that perpetuate the script that network marketing is a grandiose plan where someone can work hard for a few years until the big money rolls in and then coast on the residual income. The misunderstandings of our industry are sometimes rooted in truth. There are people who have behaved badly, and maybe we haven’t always corrected those bad behaviors quickly enough. We need to call out any bad actors; if we don’t, it hurts everyone.
We are starting to flip the script by becoming more customer-centric, and many companies are reaping the benefits of rewarding activity that directly brings in new customers and representatives. This is the way forward if we are to meet the changing customer and market expectations and stay relevant. But we have to work harder.