When Brands Advocate Social Causes, Authenticity Is Key
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YouTube users will have some trouble finding an official version of Kendall Jenner’s 2017 Pepsi commercial. The controversial ad, which featured this popular young influencer navigating through a swath of protestors to offer a police officer a can of soda, was met with condemnation and pulled off the broadcast and digital airwaves not long after its release.
Critics said it showed disrespect to protestors in the Black Lives Matter movement and seemed as though it was trying to mirror the now-famous photo of the young black woman peacefully standing her ground in the path of police.
Overall, the Jenner snafu had consumers and media professionals questioning how brands can effectively advocate for causes, let alone even be dipping their toes into the murky social waters at all.
Still, there's hope: If the Jenner Pepsi advert sits at the “catastrophic failure” end of the brand social-advocacy spectrum, Gillette’s “The Best Men Can Be” offering rests comfortably at the other more positive end. Described by the men’s razor and shaving company as a “short film” rather than a commercial, “The Best Men Can Be” -- with its images of men dissuading one another as well as young boys from bad behavior -- made a largely positive, undeniably unignorable impact on the social, consumer and media landscape after its release in January 2019.
Clearly, you needn't be a team of expert researchers or a social scientist to decipher the success or failure, respectively, of Pepsi's and Gillette's advocacy efforts. For the shaving brand, in addition to offering examples of toxic masculinity and solutions for how men can be better, "came to life." Reason: The company emphasized authenticity in its campaign, and in turn, offered a sturdy blueprint for other organizations to follow when choosing to advocate on social causes.
Consumers value authenticity in brands.
According to a Workplace Culture Trends report published by LinkedIn, 71 percent of workplace professionals surveyed said they would be “willing to take a pay cut for a company that has a mission they believe in, and shared values.” A similar mentality was shared by consumers in a 2018 report from Euclid focusing on brand values and customer loyalty.
Its researchers reported that 44 percent of consumers polled said that, a “brand’s alignment with their personal values was important to them,”and 85 percent of consumers “prefer[red] businesses that support charities.”
One way brands have been successful in reaching consumers through socially conscious ads has been to simply declare their values on screen. In 2017, Audi released an emotionally compelling ad depicting a daughter and her father and stating that the company was “committed to equal pay for equal work.”
Other times, ads may not be advocating for a larger cause or platform, but simply trying to normalize or address social issues on a smaller scale. In 2017, Bodyform, the U.K. brand of Swedish feminine hygiene product manufacturer Libresse, released an ad helping to quell taboos around menstruation. Periods, the ad said, are "normal; showing them should be, too.” The commercials were generally met with acclaim, not necessarily for being clever and creative, but because their message was clear and concise.
Companies likely realize the importance of having strong social values when they try to connect with consumers, but the more difficult achievement for them is being authentic in their advocacy.
For Gillette, the “The Best Men Can Be” wasn’t a quick, multi-million dollar ad buy to capitalize on current topical social issues, but more likely the end result of lengthy in-house conversations over the course of several months. The company has also dedicated ongoing, multi-million dollar donations to groups whose missions ring true with the ideas and themes the ad portrays.
And that action just may prove to consumers and audiences in general that the company's investment in this topic won’t diminish -- even after its moment of viral success is long over.