The past 12 months have been particularly rife with agonizing social issues, amplified by media channels that make us eyewitnesses to social storms near and far. Outside our country we’ve seen unrest in Syria, refugees around the world searching for a better life, ongoing instability in Venezuela. Within our borders, we’ve had election warfare that spared no constituent group, numerous unarmed black citizens killed by police officers, seemingly incessant gun violence, and much more.
What is the role of companies when such issues are so much on the minds of their employees and their customers? Must brands choose a side? And where are the advertising agencies on the spectrum of guiding brands towards these topics? There’s an obvious risk to talking about highly controversial social problems in a corporate-to-consumer channel, but I argue that the loss of some customers can be worth the gain in integrity — especially if a brand takes a stand on common ground.
Over the years, we marketers have followed the narrative of celebrities, often athletes, who make a social error or worse (see: Tiger Woods, Ryan Lochte, etc.), and subsequently lose sponsors. It’s happened so often it’s become almost routine. But what about when the celebrity speaks out — or takes a knee — on a controversial topic, inspires others to do the same, revives his career, sets fan jerseys flying off the shelf … and also angers a vocal constituent group in the process? Does a brand stand by its man (or woman) or take a step back? Ad executive Jim Andrews, VP at IEG, captures the tension in his comment: “You don’t want to be seen as disassociating yourself, because it could be misconstrued … Basically, [Colin Kaepernick] is a very polarizing figure right now, and in general, in marketing for most companies and brands, polarizing is not a good thing.”
He’s right: An either/or response is a trap. Choosing one side can mean alienating another. The safer, and yet potentially more powerful, play is to acknowledge that the conversation is happening, speak to the common ground, and offer consumers a platform for dialogue. The #LoveWins tag was embraced by CPGs when the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage in 2015. Brands from Oreo to Target to Honey Maid all jumped on board, tweeting messages of #LoveWins and changing their avatars to rainbow flags. The relatable message of “love and committed coupledom” (rather than a focus on the more controversial argument for “gay rights”) was one that was easily embraced, with secondary messaging around celebration and shared humanity. But brands, with the exception of Uber, Facebook, Twitter, and a few others, have been noticeably silent on #blacklivesmatter, which has yet to find messaging that brings all to the table. When it comes to such painful social ills, should marketers aim to inspire action or just stay out of it? (ATT CEO Randall Stephenson is starting the conversation with his employees about the spread of racially charged violence and we’ll keep our eyes on whether they invert some of that conversation outward toward customers.) How can brands openly and honestly engage?
The same core marketing principle I’ve preached to clients and colleagues for many years still apply to these stickier plotlines — emotionally differentiating through effective storytelling and shared values enables authentic engagement in even the most controversial topics. Campaigns engage consumers by allowing room for both company and consumer to feel vulnerability, acknowledge the social tension, and experience their shared humanity. People also want a chance to express what the emotions evoked in them mean in their own lives. Ideally brands can provide that platform.
Witness some brands who’ve mastered the middle ground by creating connections through shared values and platforms for dialogue:
Secret: Humanizing an issue that feels abstract to many
While Nike took on transgender and athleticism in August, Secret has just released a new spot taking on transgender and humanism with a scene that stages a moment resonant for women everywhere. As “Dana” waits in her bathroom stall, we can feel her conflict and imagine the countless complex and stressful situations beyond the bathroom for a transgender person. The situation gets flipped; rather than feel defensive against a perceived “other,” we’re placed in Dana’s shoes, feeling that vulnerability and tension. We empathize.
Jarritos: Immigrants are about more than a wall
Amid daily pronouncements by the US Republican presidential candidate about building a wall, Mexican soda brand Jarritos personalizes the journey of immigrants — their individual stories, struggles, tensions, and triumphs — in a newly released ad/video spot. The ad, viewed nearly 2 million times on Facebook, focuses on #bettertogether as its theme. The company, based in El Paso, TX, is soliciting immigrant stories, creating a platform for storytelling, and surfacing a shared value: “Though our stories have different chapters, they are all bound by the desire to live free.” The messaging in this campaign is subtly taking a stand against the wall and anti-immigrant bluster—but indirectly, by focusing on shared humanity.
Frito Lay: Getting into the mix with bolder positioning
Frito Lay/Doritos is wading into election-season waters in a nonpartisan way by engaging consumers and hosting a platform with Rock the Vote to boost voter registration and participation in the election with the tag “the boldest choice is making a choice.” (Partnering with the It Gets Better Project, Doritos previously used its “bolder” positioning to release rainbow chips with the relatable tag “There’s nothing bolder than being yourself,” and 100% of profits went to the organization.) The brand acknowledges that its key target audience is confronting challenging issues daily, but it chooses relatable messages of common ground (be yourself; make a choice) and offers a platform for discussion and action.
Talking about controversial topics is avoided at most extended-family dinners. So why would you want to blast a message out to your consumer following? Because marketers can accomplish some real good — for their brands and even for society — by acknowledging the issues plaguing real people today. The key is finding and speaking to the common ground — through shared values and shared humanity. By doing so, marketers can create affinity, legacy, and loyalty to sustain a brand through any political and social storm.
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