Causes for con­cern

Olga Kudryashova says brands that take a stance with­out fully com­mit­ting can soon see their good in­ten­tions back­fire.

Campaign Middle East - - FRONT PAGE - OLGA KUDRYASHOVA Y& R strate­gic plan­ning di­rec­tor MENA

In ad­ver­tis­ing, cu­rios­ity is re­ward­ing. To­day, for cu­rios­ity to thrive there is no richer en­vi­ron­ment than so­cial me­dia. It grants in­quis­i­tive thinkers a wealth of first-hand, free-of-charge guid­ance on brand and com­mu­ni­ca­tion strate­gies. Guid­ance that comes not from a text­book, not from an online course, but from real peo­ple, in real time. A re­cent Bianco Foot­ware com­mer­cial caught my at­ten­tion on Face­book, as a thought-pro­vok­ing de­bate rapidly un­folded.

Ear­lier this year, Bianco, a Dan­ish shoe brand, pro­duced an ad that caused a heated de­bate on so­cial me­dia. A video, ‘Equal pay is not enough’, ad­vo­cated that women are en­ti­tled to more pay be­cause their ev­ery­day life is more ex­pen­sive. The role of the prod­uct – the shoes – in the story was to in­flict vi­o­lence on men to am­plify the point. From the brand’s per­spec­tive it was “a cam­paign based on a cur­rent cul­tural trend, with a sense of irony and hu­mor­ous ap­proach”. How­ever, many peo­ple did not find it funny. An avalanche of com­ments ques­tioned Bianco’s right to ex­ploit the sub­ject of gen­der equal­ity for com­mer­cial pur­poses.

It is tempt­ing for brands to rise above ad­ver­tis­ing clut­ter by tak­ing a stance on con­tro­ver­sial so­cial is­sues. By do­ing that a brand can boost the level of affin­ity with like­minded view­ers, in­crease im­me­di­ate con­sumer en­gage­ment and stim­u­late highly de­sir­able fan-to-fan in­ter­ac­tion. But many peo­ple who saw Bianco’s ad did not think brands should be ‘cash­ing in’ on so­cial causes. The view­ers chal­lenged the brand with ques­tions like: ‘Is fem­i­nism an in­te­gral part of your brand?’ and ‘What do you do to bet­ter equal­ity in so­ci­ety?’

One might ar­gue that Benet­ton ads have al­ways ex­posed so­cial is­sues. But Benet­ton ads were never just about con­tro­versy; they were an ex­pres­sion of the brand’s com­mit­ment to shap­ing cit­i­zen con­scious­ness and get­ting the world closer to solv­ing those is­sues. Toms, an­other shoe com­pany, lit­er­ally ‘walks the talk’. Help­ing peo­ple in need is its pri­mary goal, and sell­ing shoes is a com­mer­cial ve­hi­cle to do that. There­fore, the ‘One for One’ con­cept has le­git­i­mately be­come the brand’s sign off on all com­mu­ni­ca­tion.

Clearly, peo­ple do not want brands com­mer­cial­is­ing so­cial is­sues, un­less solv­ing those is­sues is at the core of a brand’s ex­is­tence. Bianco’s ad could have been an in­ter­est­ing piece of branded con­tent if only ad­vo­cat­ing women’s rights had been its long-stand­ing cor­po­rate pur­suit.

What can give a brand the right to en­gage in a se­ri­ous so­cial de­bate? In to­day’s world com­mu­ni­ca­tion and brand pres­ence are ex­tremely frag­mented. In pur­suit of rel­e­vance it is easy to fall into the trap of en­gag­ing in con­ver­sa­tions and cre­at­ing con­tent that feeds off ex­ist­ing hot top­ics. What helps a brand choose the right sub­ject and ways to en­gage? Peo­ple want brands to be pur­pose­ful and have an hon­est and in­sight­ful view of shared val­ues that help con­sumers achieve a more ful­filled ver­sion of them­selves. A brand pur­pose acts as a cen­trifu­gal force keep­ing the brand fo­cused on its core prom­ise and mak­ing ev­ery­thing else on the fringes eas­ier to dis­card. In Bianco’s case, re­solv­ing gen­der in­equal­ity was an in­ter­est­ing topic but not part of the brand pur­pose. There­fore, many peo­ple did not feel Bianco had the right to pro­mote the mes­sage.

And fi­nally, if a brand de­cides to en­gage global au­di­ences it must con­sider the progress dif­fer­ent na­tions have made on that so­cial is­sue. In Den­mark, gen­der in­equal­ity was ad­dressed in the 70s. While women are fight­ing for the right to go to school, drive, vote, or work in other parts of the world, Den­mark is ranked among the five best coun­tries glob­ally in terms of gen­der equal­ity. There­fore, the Dan­ish au­di­ence re­acted more pos­i­tively to Bianco’s claim than peo­ple from other coun­tries.

De­spite the au­di­ence push-back, the Bianco team took pride in pro­vok­ing a pub­lic de­bate. Was the ‘Equal pay is not enough’ ap­peal the right or wrong move for the busi­ness? Only the brand it­self can an­swer. But it proved yet again the real-time power of the con­sumers. Peo­ple have the author­ity to hold brands im­me­di­ately ac­count­able for ev­ery choice brands make. And peo­ple are very likely to make those judge­ments within their own cul­tural con­text. So, brands need to demon­strate and prove their com­mit­ment to en­rich­ing and im­prov­ing peo­ple’s lives re­gard­less of the ge­ogra­phies they op­er­ate in. The eas­i­est way to do this is to have a pow­er­ful hu­man pur­pose that drives a brand’s strate­gic de­ci­sions and ac­tiv­i­ties, and unites it with its fans in a joint ef­fort to make the world a bet­ter place.

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