Breaking Down Taboos

Marketers used to tiptoe around taboo or sensitive topics like menstruation, irregularity, impotence and menopause, just to name a few. Advertising addressing these issues often used flowery euphemisms so vague they bordered on comical.

But some marketers have found that being direct and honest not only works better to sell products, but also creates fiercely loyal brand advocates.

Consider the success of Pfizer’s breakthrough Viagra campaign with Bob Dole. Before that campaign, it was impossible to imagine men openly discussing erectile dysfunction (ED). ED made men feel inadequate and because of this, men just didn’t talk about it — period. The silence created solitude — that they alone had this problem. Pfizer’s insight was that this problem was widespread. Men weren’t alone — they were just isolated by their silence. Having a well-known and respected man talk about his struggles broke the ice on the subject and suddenly men realized they could talk about it. And one of the things they talked about most was Viagra, which became one of the best-selling pharmaceutical products ever.

These campaigns aren’t, by any means, limited to health issues. Take Dove’s “Real Beauty” campaign. It was built around the disconnect between how women see themselves and how they see themselves portrayed in the media. The campaign said all women — not just not just skinny fashion models — are beautiful, and it showed this by putting normal-size women of all ages in beauty ads. This campaign generated untold amounts of positive earned media for Dove. It has made the brand into one that is seen as an advocate for its consumers and has earned it a lasting halo effect.

In order to create a campaign that establishes a cause, consider the following:

Anomalies Help Identify a Cause: If consumer behavior is telling you one thing, but societal behavior is showing quite another, look at that gap — and then jump right into it. That could be your gold mine. Cause-driven campaigns are risky, but you have to take a chance to get the big results. To mitigate risk, you must have a singular powerful campaign mission and ensure that all campaign executors — both agencies and clients — are fully aligned around the mission and prepared to defend against mediocrity.  

When Kimberly-Clark’s Kotex brand needed a way to remake the brand into something truly unique, the company worked with its agency to conduct in-depth research on how feminine care was portrayed in marketing and discussed in society. K-C found a significant gap between what women wanted and what they were getting when it came to talking about vaginal health issues. This insight was the foundation of the U by Kotex campaign, which focuses on why it is stupid and harmful not to talk about vaginal health issues.  In other words, it is about what the consumer is interested in, not what the company wants.

Authenticity Is Key: Once you have established the need on which to base your cause-driven campaign, it’s important to create and execute the right type of initiative. It should start with the traditional marketing approach of a brand talking directly about the cause, and then it must evolve into giving the consumer a voice. The first part lets the brand perform the much-needed role of icebreaker, saying in a big public way, “Hey, it’s OK to talk about this.” The second part lets consumers know that you want to help by letting them connect with you and with other interested consumers.

Social Media Drives Community Discussion: In cause-related digital campaigns, social media is the absolutely most important element. Social enables consumers to talk to each other and recruit friends and family to the cause. Once the campaign reaches critical mass, it is essential that marketers follow, not lead, the conversation. Do this and consumers will tell you what they want. This will let you optimize the campaign on the spot and thereby make it even more appealing.

As marketers, we know that a program’s success is measured by business performance management metrics as well as the weight of the audience. But when you talk about a taboo subject, the consumer magnifies the impact. Brands involved in these campaigns must understand they are just motivating the conversation. The audience, using earned media, then delivers the message about social norms that need to be changed. What better way to come across with a genuine voice than by having consumers be your advocates and empowering them to address the community?

Essentially, brands need to get the ball rolling by raising the issue, asking the questions and motivating the discussion — and then letting the audience drive the conversation from there.

Marita Scarfi is CEO at Organic Inc. and Andrew Meurer is vp, North American group brands feminine, adult, senior care at Kimberly-Clark. They can be reached at marita@organic.com and andrew.p.meurer@kcc.com.

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