March 11, 2019
Brand Building

Brands taking a social stand is a slippery slope

Bill Field

Trends in the branding and advertising world that show no signs of abating are virtue signaling, values marketing and corporate activism communications.

Advertising is the ultimate copycat business as more brands are bowing to societal and political pressures to take a stand. The corporate responsibility space grows more crowded each day as brands jump on board with their trumpets blaring about their "stand" on social media.

The question arises, are we looking at a moment in time or a movement that truly changes the branding paradigm? This space is not for the faint of heart. Equally with these campaigns, there are moments of elation and troughs of despair.

Where one CEO sees the opportunity for social purpose leadership for their brand, another views it through the profitability-and-revenue-increase lens. They don't have to be mutually exclusive of each other, but it is tricky to navigate from a branding perspective to not fall into being labeled as "good washing" the brand.

Brands portraying themselves as "influencers" are on the rise. The Millennial and Gen Z consumer crowds are pushing the brand shift to increased social-issue involvement. Conversely, a large percentage of audiences (close to 50 percent) identify themselves as disinterested and unengaged with brands' social messaging and support. They care about brand performance.

It presents a major dilemma for brands. It's a fine line to walk when entering the advertising world that utilizes "virtue signaling" as their brand positioning. You solidify brand advocates while at the same time alienating an equal percentage of consumers.

Late last year, for example, Nike's campaign — "Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything." — featured the polarizing former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who gained national attention for kneeling during the national anthem and speaking out on social-justice issues. It resonated on multiple levels, both from a creative message and revenue impact standpoint.

Gillette's latest campaign — "The best men can be" — has entirely missed the mark. Important lessons are to be learned from both. Using corporate activism as a branding mechanism is complicated and loaded with downside risk.

Nike's campaign was a continuation of the well-orchestrated execution of their arrogant brand personality based upon athletic performance — one that's been carefully crafted in their breakthrough advertising for decades. The tagline "Just Do It" asks the question of whether you are good enough to wear Nike shoes and apparel.

The Kaepernick ad worked because social activism has always been an integral part of Nike's strategy. This long-standing purpose gives consumers a reason to belong to the brand.

On the other hand, Gillette's latest campaign, "The best men can be," falls flat on all counts when taking on the toxic masculinity front. It reeks of desperation for a brand that has lost close to 20 percent in market share during the last decade.

Category disruptors, Harry's and Dollar Shave Club, are eating Gillette's lunch as both continue their quest to own the men's grooming category.

It doesn't feel like a social campaign, but one of repositioning "The best a man can get" tagline that Gillette's been running for decades. They're using the guise of "being a better man" as a way to elevate the brand. It's disingenuous at best and lacks true authenticity.

Yes, there are social-media tactics supporting the campaign, but the buzz is sure to subside quickly. The dislike-to-like ratio for the campaign is disproportional.

The greatest mistake is underestimating the pushback from the "lecture" feel of the execution. It scolds, it's preachy and accusatory. It groups men together as inherently flawed. Telling people what to do is a dangerous precedent when you're a brand.

Take a look at Gillette's current packaging — blue for men, pink for women. The latest campaign is a classic example of "greenwashing" in action. They say one thing and do another as the strategy hasn't yet trickled down across the company.

The bottom line: Corporate-activism branding is tricky to navigate and can be a home run or strikeout.

Bill Field is the founder of FieldActivate, a Connecticut-based marketing firm.

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