Purposeful Brands Earn The Right to Speak

In advertising, there is nothing more rewarding than curiosity. And 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 commercial from Bianco Footwear, re-shared by one of my friends on Facebook, caught my attention, as a thought-provoking debate unfolded in a matter of hours.

At the start of 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’ was advocating that women have all the reasons to be paid more because their everyday life is more expensive. The role of the product, i.e. the shoes, in the story was to inflict violence on men and amplify the point women were making (possibly inspired by the 1962 Nikita Khrushchev’s shoe-banging incident at the UN General Assembly meeting). From the brand’s point of view, 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. Despite the film’s interesting production qualities and a true insight into the discriminating discrepancies in the cost of male and female existence, an avalanche of comments fervently questioned Bianco’s right to exploit the subject of gender equality for commercial purposes.

This spontaneous debate raised a set of very interesting and timely questions:              

  1. Can a brand commercialize a social issue?
  2. What can give a brand the right to engage in a serious social debate?
  3. Is it important to consider the global nature of social media when creating content?

Naturally, it seems very tempting and attractive for brands to ride above the advertising clutter by taking a stance on pertinent and controversial social issues. By doing that a brand can quickly boost the level of affinity with like-minded viewers, increase immediate consumer engagement and stimulate highly desirable fan-to-fan interaction. But many people that saw Bianco’s ad do not think brands should be ‘cashing in’ on social causes. Quite rightly, in their comments, viewers grilled the brand with questions like: ‘Is feminism an integral part of your brand? What do you do to better equality in the society? Does your company offer courses about feminism and equality to your employees?’

One might argue that Benetton ads have always exposed social issues such as racial discrimination, gender stereotypes, world hunger, HIV. But were those ads using controversy to sell products? 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 the issues. Another excellent example is TOMS, a shoe company that literally ‘walks the talk’ every step of the way. Helping people in need is the primary goal of their business, 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 every piece of communication.

Clearly, people do not want to accept brands commercializing social issues, unless solving those issues is at the core of the brand’s existence. Bianco’s ad could have been an interesting piece of branded content if only advocating women’s rights had been their 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 on 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 understand and consider the progress different nations have made on the respective social issue. In Denmark, gender inequality was done away with way back in the 70s. While women are fighting for the right to go to school, or drive, or vote, or work in other parts of the world, Denmark is ranked as one of the five best countries globally in terms of gender equality. So it comes as no surprise that the Danish audience reacted with a more positive sentiment to Bianco’s claim than people from other countries.

Despite the pushback from the audiences, the Bianco team defended their approach and took pride in provoking a public debate. Whether ‘Equal pay is not enough’ appeal was the right or wrong move for the business only the brand itself can answer. But I appreciate the valuable learnings that Bianco offered us, marketers. It proved yet again the real-time power of the consumers. People have the authority to hold brands immediately accountable for every choice the brands make. And people are very likely to make those judgments within their own cultural context. Therefore, brands need to demonstrate and be prepared to 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.

Written by Olga Kudryashova, Y&R Strategic Planning Director MENA
Article originally appeared in Campaign