It’s once again in vogue for brands to take stands on important social issues. The 2018 Edelman Earned Brand study found that “nearly two-thirds of consumers around the world now buy on belief, a remarkable increase of 13 points since 2017.” This isn’t simply the rise of social good-minded millennials, either. “Belief-driven buyers are now the majority in every market surveyed across all age groups and all income levels.”
Some of that rapid change in consumer mindset is undoubtedly driven more by the current political and social climate than the deep-seated consumer wants, but it’s no longer simply a fad. It’s something that all brands need to consider.
However, it’s a fine balance to walk. The age of personalization meant looking outward, reflecting the customer back on themselves. In many ways, that is far easier to adapt to than taking a firm stance on who you are and hoping they agree. That can often put brands in tough situations, whether they are trying to project their sincere corporate values or are just keeping a heads-down focus on business.
Values, but at what cost?
It’s important to recognize that a brand like Nike can pull off socially conscious and even controversial ad campaigns because they have built their reputation around those issues. They have a long history of directly pushing social causes, so while the Colin Kaepernick or Serena Williams ads may still stir some controversy, they are completely in line with how the brand has expressed and promoted itself. Any infuriated consumers are simply showing their own ignorance to the brand they supported.
Even Coca-Cola can pull off more socially progressive messaging because of their long history of feel-good, teach-the-world-to-sing marketing. Of course, when Pepsi took a step in that direction, the result was disastrous. There were many problems with the infamous Kendall Jenner ad, but certainly one of the biggest was simply consumer expectations and a misaligned campaign.
So how does a brand navigate marketing in this world where consumers want values but are extremely fickle in how those values are expressed, especially when it’s not why they bought from that brand in the first place?
Gillette’s recent “The Best a Man Can Be” campaign highlights the pitfalls. By most metrics, the campaign was a success for the razor brand, even in some unanticipated ways. Yet it still received a backlash and sparked controversy that the razor company didn’t seem to anticipate nor know how to respond to.
The takeaway from Gillette shouldn’t be that brands need to be cautious in taking a stand, but rather that they need to be able to anticipate the response, be ready for it and, in some ways, harness it.
The future will be A/B tested
The beauty and the challenge of this era is that once posited, brand values can’t waver. Customers will immediately call out any hint of pandering, trend-chasing or insincerity. But there are of course right and wrong ways to express those values in marketing, especially when the impact is as much on your bottom line than actually shifting culture.
Where many go wrong, however, is in the assumption that a value must be born, complete and true, from day one. There is also a marketer’s fallacy that not wavering means not iterating, finding different lifeforms and delivery mechanisms to make sure it reaches the customer in the best possible way. Advertising that seeks to make a statement needs to still be adaptive and responsive. It needs to be proactive and to anticipate reactions.
Adaptive advertising offers brands a way to negotiate the fine line of expressing social values that their customers expect, and our Twitter-enraged cancel-culture that reacts with hair-trigger ferocity at any misstep.
Luckily, we live in an era where we can test without going all in and before we’re truly held to our word. Leveraging technologies like AI, adaptive advertising can feel out reactions as campaigns are being developed to help guide them internally before Super Bowl budgets are spent on asinine takes and build-ups like the recent corn syrup beer brawls.
Creative agencies and advertisers have long relied on the hallowed focus group feedback, even as we all recognize their unreliability and biases. Digital platforms today allow us to A/B test actual messaging in the wild, but even that reach is limited and only tackles the first layer of reaction to a potential campaign.
AI applications offer a better solution. They can programmatically A/B test on the fly and adjust campaigns based on reactions, allowing brands to see not just how a message is received, but reactions and unanticipated pitfalls.
Taking this one step further, entire campaigns can be simulated beforehand to gauge not just responses and reactions, but how engagement should proceed based on those reactions. AI can reduce the risk investment put into a social stance campaign by anticipating how it will be received while also fueling a new adaptive advertising that guides reactions that will continue to move the campaign in the desired direction.
It’s not always going to go as planned. If stepping into the spotlight and highlighting your brand’s values aren’t generating a certain level of controversy, then you’re not really saying anything at all. However, that doesn’t mean that you have to go into a campaign blind or that messaging and responses can’t evolve.
Most of all, no brand should ever be in a situation where they have to pull an ad or apologize for missing the mark. We have the technology and capabilities to anticipate and predict response. Brands that aren’t taking advantage of that before a controversial campaign are simply flailing around with sharp objects in the dark thinking they know the direction of the dartboard.