One day, my nine-year-old daughter came home upset. Her music instructor had asked the students to recommend a song they could learn as a group. My daughter, an introvert and music lover, promptly volunteered a popular song that her mother and I agreed was innocent enough. Her classmates loved the song choice so the teacher started to play it. In the middle of the song, he turned it off and decided to go with The Beatles’ Ob-La-Di-Ob-La-Da. The kids complied.
Maybe the teacher felt one of the lines was inappropriate. Maybe he just didn’t like the beat or style. Whatever the case, he gave no explanation to the students and left my daughter feeling deflated. She rarely volunteers ideas at school so we discussed how she could have responded to the teacher’s change of plan. I told her directly, “When you think someone — grown up or not — is not acting fairly, speak up. That includes me. You have a voice that deserves to be heard if your aim is fairness and truth.”
She smiled, nodded, and I hope she took something away from this experience. But my daughter — like any creator, business owner, or entrepreneur — felt compromised. She shut down because her ideas were shut down, and the more we’re rebuffed, the less likely we are to speak up again.
The same is true in business. For all of you who have yet to boldly define the voice of your business or brand, who fear taking a stand and leading with your ideals, it’s essential to recognize the power and importance of leaning into the stances you’re willing to take and living the story you want to tell. Sometimes those stances may be risky, contested, controversial even. But conscious consumers won’t follow a brand that doesn’t wholly believe in itself.
Companies Can Take a Stand
Recently, Gillette released their new ad campaign headlined with a short film titled “We Believe: The Best Men Can Be.” This marked the launch of Gillette’s complete rebranding. Over 100 years ago, Gillette innovated the original inexpensive, disposable razor blade. For decades their tagline has been “The Best a Man Can Get,” which speaks not only to their domination of the market but also the the type of man a Gillette man is. He is the epitome of masculinity, with a fast car, great job, and a gorgeous girl on his arm. He deserves the best of everything because, well, he’s a real man.
With their new tagline, Gillette recants the message that they have broadcast for decades. The video begins with grimace-inducing images of men harassing, mansplaining, and bullying. This section is what we call in our ArtMark™ Brand Story & Strategy program the brand story’s Broken World: the framed portrait of what is afoul in modern society.
Midway through the short film, we reach a turning point. The narrator explains that something has changed: “You can’t hide from it” or “laugh it off, making the same old excuses.” What comes next is scenes of men breaking the cycles of “toxic masculinity” — intervening in fights between boys and calling out catcallers — to redefine what it is to be a man. “It’s only by challenging ourselves to do more,” the narrator says, “that we can get closer to our best.”
Did Gillette catch flack? Of course. Male customers railed on social media to boycott all P&G products. News pundits cast the campaign as another political tactic to neuter men. Advertising experts thought that Gillette could have been more explicit about how the company had contributed to that “toxic masculinity” in the first place.
Gillette anticipated this backlash, and preemptively gave context for this bold marketing move. Before the ad’s release, the company issued this statement: “In a world where the actions of a few can taint the reputation of the many, we know there’s work to be done — together.” The campaign is “setting a new standard for our brand” they said, “to encourage and inspire the next generation to be its best.”
Some might say that Gillette’s marketing strategy is opportunistic. On the heels of the “Me Too” movement and a whole slew of sexual harassment scandals, the campaign could be seen as capitalizing on a trending news topic. But I don’t think that’s the case. Gillette has a new generation of razor users. This new consumer base lives in an era of social activism and gender equality that puts these issues at the forefront of their decision making.
Millenials want to vote with their wallets, and a company that speaks to the popular conversation will resonate in a way that the Marlboro man can’t anymore. Studies have shown that consumers today will buy on beliefs: they want companies to take a stand. Dynamic brands evolve. And that means even the big brands like Gillette should be allowed to revise their point of view, if not reverse their stance.
What You Can Learn from Gillette
The video hit a lot of nerves, receiving both praise and criticism. Numerous high-profile women applauded it on Twitter, while some men called for boycotts. But consumer habits are hard to break. Recent studies show that “boycotters” typically won’t follow through, and it’s unlikely so many that took issue with the video will eschew the ubiquitous razor.
More importantly though, Gillette sparked a dialogue and gave people a platform upon which to express their beliefs. One Gillette spokesperson told a news outlet, “If we get people to pause, reflect and to challenge themselves and others to ensure that their actions reflect who they really are, then this campaign will be a success.” Judging by the amount of buzz the ad caused, I’d say mission accomplished.
Gillette has acknowledged that, as a brand in the 21st century, they are contributing to the timely story of what it means to be a man in the world today. By assuming responsibility for that story, they not only changed their outdated narrative: they risked controversy in order to tap into a new audience base and remain relevant in an ever-changing world.
How We Can Implement Brand-Building with Integrity
As you consider what “stance” is worth genuinely taking, start with your business goals. Consider what your one-year, five-year, even ten-year plans look like and try to answer these questions:
- What conversation do you want your brand or business to start, or contribute to?
- What message about being human is your brand perpetuating (or challenging)?
- Who is your customer or client and what issues, struggles, or dreams does that person want to talk about?
- How can you prompt people to talk about your ads or brand story in a constructive way?
When you lead with your ideals, there will be those that want to bring you down or point out your ethical inconsistencies. There always are. Rather than worry about losing those potential customers, realize that you’ve successfully culled an audience of loyal followers that are aligned with your brand’s purpose-driven mission. As to the naysayers, you’re probably better off without them.
No matter your company size, know that you have the ability to influence and engage in the important conversations that shape our lives and our world. In doing so, you are brand-building with integrity which will not only keep you relevant, but cast you as a thought leader in your field and in society at large. My hope is that every company recognizes a solid brand story’s power — and when my nine year old grows up I hope that, whether she works for or starts a company, she is willing to take a stance and risk backlash for the sake of her beliefs.