We have all read the same articles and books about what it takes for brands to succeed today: Brands need to have purpose.
Younger millennial and Gen Z consumers give preference to brands that stand for something. Companies and brands have vast resources. In a world where governmental organizations are politically divided and feckless, marketers have the responsibility to act as quasi-GMOs to help make the world a better place. Brands may be less excited about this approach as a responsibility and more excited about it as a marketing opportunity.
The industry has become fixated on brands that have a social message. Just look at the Grand Prix winners at Cannes this year. The vast majority were for ideas about righting social wrongs. What is most valued by judges today are campaigns that purport to make the world a better place.
This is a good thing because these issues need champions. Brands should not stop trying to improve the world, but with brands jumping on social bandwagons, there is a legitimate question about whether it is effective marketing. Social good is branding’s most crowded space. And it may actually be de-positioning brands.
How crowded is the space? Look at the recent gay pride celebration. Brands leapt at the opportunity to build floats and create supportive messages, but thousands marched that day in the Queer Liberation March to protest the commercialization of Pride. In fact, the empty commercialization of Pride has become a serious issue for LGBTQ communities worldwide. It has been labelled Pride’s “global identity crisis.” When the group that you are trying to support feels they need to reclaim their own event, it probably means that advertisers have gone too far. The LGBTQ community has noted that some of the brands that take advantage of the Pride platform (such as many banks) are investing is areas contrary to the movement. They are using the platform while giving nothing substantial to the community itself.
Such messages start simple, with a clear view of what is being supported, but they can get messy. Nike’s original support of Colin Kaepernick was a risky step for them, but they had a relevant place in this issue. Not only were they supporting free speech, but they were supporting the rights of athletes to state their mind. Yet the issue shifted when Kaepernick’s opinions caused them to withdraw their latest sneakers because (Kaepernick felt) the Betsy Ross flag was connected to an era of slavery and was allegedly connected to extremist organizations.
This is a very different issue than support for free speech. In fact, it can even be seen as the opposite: Nike is now determining what symbols we can and cannot use. Are all American images before the Civil War verboten? If one marginal extremist organization misappropriates an image, is it forever off-limits?
Nike missed a great opportunity here. This was a chance to reinfuse the Betsy Ross flag with a modern meaning of freedom, rather than to just discard it. But because it lost sight of the issue and listened only to the person (Kaepernick), it may have done more harm than good. Is Kaepernick the decider of such things? Is he the only voice? This is light years away from Nike’s original support of a man who wanted the freedom to express his point of view. It’s a slippery slope.
Brands clearly need to be socially relevant. They need to help improve the world. But it is not the differentiator it once was. A case in point is P&G’s “The Look,” which follows on from its 2017 Cannes Grand Prix winner “The Talk.” The commercial is masterfully done, but it lacks the uniqueness and marketing punch of the original because it is now two years later. It is no longer a surprising message, and surprise is at the core of advertising. As we have seen in the case of Pride, advertiser exploitation can become a negative over time.
Buried in the Grand Prix winners were ideas that directly supported brands’ positionings and unique benefits. Look at Wendy’s Fortnite campaign on Twitch. It was a brilliant idea on the perfect media platform. It was all about the brand’s unique product difference. The Burger King Whopper Detour was another idea that perfectly fit the brand’s personality and competitive spirit. Westworld: The Maze uniquely captured the experience of the product itself.
Marketers need to get back to good old-fashioned positioning. Unless a product is fundamentally about making the world a better place or inextricably connected to it because of the brand’s positioning, then it helps to remember how to create breakthrough ideas that reinforce why the product is fundamentally better than its competitors. Advertising always comes full circle: It’s about the product, stupid.
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