Can Marketing Using Social Issues Help a Brand Succeed?

Can Marketing Using Social Issues Help a Brand Succeed?

You’d have to have been living under a rock not to notice the huge stir Gillette's recent ‘The Best Men Can Be’ commercial caused. Turning their famous slogan ‘The Best a Man Can Get’ on its head, in the wake of the #MeToo scandal and growing awareness of toxic masculinity. Some viewers were extremely angry, whereas others praised it for highlighting current issues. But how smart a business move was it from Gillette? Will it prove to damage their public perception and sales figures, or warm consumers to the brand? We take a look at the figures surrounding the commercial, as well as two other famous ‘controversial’ advertisements of recent years: Nike’s ‘Dream Crazy’ campaign with Colin Kaepernick and Pepsi’s infamous ‘Live for Now’ campaign.

Gillette, 2019

Razor brand Gillette’s recent commercial prompted very strong reactions. Motivated by #MeToo news stories, the commercial questions the ‘boys will be boys’ excuse, showing men reprimanding their friends for catcalling women, as well as intervening when young boys are bullied. It received incredibly divided criticism, with some arguing that a razor brand shouldn’t be wading into social issues, and others praising it for this exact reason.

The commercial currently has over 29 million views on YouTube, with 1.4 million dislikes and only around 760,000 likes. With these figures, and the barrage of criticism from affronted men (and some women) on social media, one would have expected the commercial to have heavily damaged Gillette’s brand image and sales figures. Although it’s still early days, this doesn’t seem to be the case.

Although there has been a drop in Gillette’s net Buzz (indicating an increase in negative noise about the brand), there has also been an increase in positive noise, around 10 percent either way, according to the U.K’s YouGov Brand Index data. In addition, since the commercial aired, purchase intent for Gillette increased by a whopping 13 percent since December 2018, and seven percent of the UK sample named Gillette as their first choice for health and beauty purchases - the highest in 5 months.

It’s early days since the commercial's release, so it’s hard to say yet what effect the Gillette advert will have on long-term sales. However, early indications seem to imply it hasn’t been as catastrophic a marketing move as some commentators initially predicted.

Nike, 2018

To understand the furore around Nike’s campaign, it’s important to know the context for featuring American Football player Colin Kaepernick. Kaepernick made headlines when he refused to stand during the American national anthem in a San Francisco 49ers game in 2016, stating, “I’m not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.” His actions sparked a wider protest movement which received both acclaim and vehement criticism, with US President Donald Trump condemning Kaepernick and other athletes.

Enter Nike. In September 2018, Kaepernick was announced as the face of the new ‘Just Do It’ campaign, featuring a close-up photograph of Kaepernick’s face with the quote, “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything”.

Some critics and social media users called for a Nike boycott, as they felt Kaepernick’s appointment by the brand was ‘un-American’ and disrespectful of the American flag. Some even posted videos online of them burning Nike products.

Nevertheless, the campaign seems to have been a win for Nike. Less than 24 hours after Kaepernick first announced it on Twitter, Nike received more than US$43 million worth of media exposure, the majority neutral to positive. In addition, two weeks after the commercial aired, the company’s online sales rose a massive 31 percent, and their stock had reached an all-time high.

The success of the Kaepernick campaign is down to Nike connecting with consumers on an emotional level, tapping into personal values such as achievement (“Don’t try to be the fastest runner in your school or the fastest runner in the world. Be the fastest ever”). and imagination (“So don’t ask if your dreams are crazy. Ask if you’re crazy enough”).

Crucially, the commercial didn’t stray from the company’s core brand message of ‘Just Do It’, similar to previous Nike offerings, with a narrative of overcoming adversity and pushing yourself to be the best you can be. This authenticity is potentially the key factor into why the risk paid off – leading us to wonder if Nike learnt something from another, widely reviled controversial campaign only a year before...

Pepsi, 2017

Pepsi’s ‘Live for Now’ advert, starring model and reality TV star Kendall Jenner was infamously pulled after only one day due to surrounding controversy, with Pepsi accused of co-opting US civil rights movements for their own corporate ends. The commercial received scathing criticism, perhaps most prominently from daughter of Martin Luther King Jr., Bernice A. King, who tweeted “If only Daddy would have known about the power of #Pepsi”.

Even a year after the advert’s release, public perception of Pepsi was still suffering, according to figures from YouGov. The brand’s purchase consideration with Millennials was at its lowest for three years, which is damning when considering how much the commercial was targeted towards this age group.

Social media monitoring company Brandwatch  found a week before the release of the commercial, mentions of Pepsi on social media were overwhelmingly positive, with over 80 percent of brand mentions on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram praising the brand, with 1,833 positive mentions. This was completely flipped the day after the commercial was pulled, with over 50 percent of mentions being negative from a whopping 20,163 posts.

Pepsi was accused of appropriating imagery from real-life protests to sell products. For example, Jenner walking up to a line of riot policemen to hand them a Pepsi was compared unfavourably with the photograph ‘Taking a Stand in Baton Rouge’ by Jonathan Bachman of protestor Ieshia Evans calmly standing in front of policemen in full riot gear before her arrest.

Jenner’s appointment as a spokesperson was highlighted as one of the poorest choices Pepsi made with the campaign. While a successful model, she has never aligned herself with any kind of activism. If you’re trying to build a campaign appealing to values, the spokesperson needs to be associated with your cause, such as with Kaepernick and Nike. Plus, the cause in the commercial is vague, with no clues as to what protestors are marching about.

Despite Pepsi’s public perception taking a nosedive, the advert didn’t seem to impact sales figures. Three months after the commercial’s release, their second quarter sales figures were released, showing a revenue increase of two percent. However, it’s hard to know if this is because of or despite the commercial, as sales revenue can be a notoriously unreliable marker of advertising impact.

On reflection

In reality, it’s difficult to predict what effect a controversial, social-justice orientated marketing campaign will have. Marketers risk alienating their audience, but can inspire consumers to make a difference, while also encouraging them to invest in a company’s products if aligned with a cause they believe in. It’s important to take into consideration what metrics you measure success by. Sales figures aren’t necessarily a marker of success, as there are many other factors that can contribute to these numbers, such as competitor successes or failings. Word of mouth and impressions can often count for more, especially as today’s society is so reliant on what people say about brands on social media.

Attaching your brand to a cause can be a gamble. You run the risk of mockery on social media, and, more seriously, consumers boycotting your products. However, in an increasingly politicised world, it might just be what sets you apart from competitors, attract new customers, and, ultimately, lead to a big payoff.

Written by Julia Gilmore

Julia is a writer for TopMBA.com, publishing articles for business students and graduates across the world. A native Londoner, she holds an MSc in Marketing Strategy & Innovation from Cass Business School and a BA in Classical Studies & English from Newcastle University.

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