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