Is There an Upside for Companies That Ride Popular Social Issues to Promote Themselves?

When is it appropriate for a major brand to exploit social issues? Companies struggle to connect their products with consumers on a personal level, and some have taken a break from promoting their products directly at all. Instead, they are appealing to consumers’ sense of social responsibility by inserting their brand into a larger socially conscious conversation. When companies borrow equity from social causes to promote themselves, do they actually strengthen their brand, or do they run the risk of pushing away the very consumers they court?

Recently, we’ve noticed an uptick in the number of companies marketing on the wave of women’s issues. Dove, of course, set the contemporary standard in this genre with the launch of the Campaign for Real Beauty in 2004. Based on an insight gleaned from research by the Dove Institute, Dove neatly connected real women’s desires to look, well, real, with the benefits of Dove skin care products. Sales success followed—even into 2006, when Dove sales were up 600% in the U.S.

Last year Dove resurrected the campaign. The ad went viral to major PR success, but it had no major impact on sales. Even though Dove found a way to maintain the conversation, it appears as though the market may have moved past it. The jury seems to be out on whether socially charged campaigns are good at selling products, which should be a caution to marketers at brands like Always and Pantene.

“Not Sorry” is Pantene’s new campaign to encourage women to stop apologizing. Though many people say “sorry” just to redirect a conversation, Pantene tries to assert that women who say they’re sorry too often send a clear signal that they’re apologizing for their very existence. The spot instructs women who say sorry to try this solution: don’t say sorry just once; say it twice! “Sorry, Not Sorry” is Pantene’s fix for personal empowerment, and it just doesn’t ring true.

Pantene makes the classic mistake of riding the wrong coattails and borrowing equity the brand doesn’t own. Without the direct connection that Dove had between insight and product, Pantene makes no sense of the relationship between shampoo, shiny hair, not saying sorry, and being empowered. What was that connection again…?

Consumers appear to be coming to the same conclusion. Pantene has 1.4 million likes on Facebook, and we don’t know how many of those were brought in by the “Not Sorry” campaign. Only .0011% of those people are actually talking about Pantene on the social network, however, and new likes are down 22% versus last week (when the campaign first broke). Initial buzz may have drawn media attention, but it seems as if the social message of the spot failed to catch fire overall.

“Like a Girl” — the new campaign from Always — makes an attempt, similar to Pantene, to connect their brand to an empowerment message: girls need to be proud of how they look and move. And like Pantene, Always never connects the dots to show why their feminine hygiene products are somehow uniquely relevant on this score.

The creators of the Always campaign, in fact, missed an opportunity. They had the chance to turn the slur “like a girl” on its head—into an homage to the beauty of active, competitive girls in motion. This tact actually would have some slim connection to the benefit that feminine hygiene products bring to women: freedom of physical movement.

Instead, the campaign leaves the viewer feeling uncomfortable. We’re forced to watch people (who don’t know they’re being set up) behave in embarrassing ways and then be humiliated for it by a “director”. It’s awful to see the confusion of a little brother who does what the director asks (run like a girl) and is then made to look heartless for having done so.

Serious issues seem trivialized when brands pull marketing stunts like these. Promotion feels predatory when advertisers hijack meaningful dialogue for a gain in sales.

A company that avoided these traps is Verizon. Their new “Powerful Answers” campaign succeeds in many areas where Pantene and Always failed. A new ad called “Inspire Her Mind” raises another serious issue related to female empowerment: the disturbing statistics about women and girls discouraged from pursuing careers in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM).

Verizon’s is an example of a socially relevant campaign done right. The company has a clear connection to the issue of bringing girls into STEM fields. It is in their business interest not to exclude half of their future talent pool (i.e. women) as potential employees.

In fact, Verizon should go further in this campaign: make the statement that they are committed to changing the status quo, and direct consumers to their website that highlights how the company is trying to empower young girls with its Powerful Answers initiative. Verizon is putting the power of their entire company toward changing this situation.

The lesson about how consumers respond may actually lie in the distinction between companies and brands. Pantene and Always are brands, serving the revenue requirements of the larger Procter and Gamble Company, and they promote in ways that deliver those results—socially conscious or otherwise. Verizon is a company, directly connected with a more relevant relationship to the social issue of girls entering STEM fields. It will benefit by expanding its talent pool in the future to include more qualified women—a connection consumers may likely find more relevant to their lives and more credible coming from Verizon the company.

So, what do these new campaigns signal for the future of socially conscious advertising? Much will likely depend on whether companies have an authentic connection and commitment to the issue (like Avon and breast cancer), or if their interest is derivative and milks a popular issue for all it’s worth. Evidence suggests that without a clear connection, consumers are unlikely to sustain a long-term relationship to either the social issue or the brand. Sorry, not sorry.

DemandWerks CEO Martha Pease recently weighed in on these new ad campaigns on CNN. Check out the interview below.

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  One thought on “Is There an Upside for Companies That Ride Popular Social Issues to Promote Themselves?

  1. July 3, 2014 at 6:59 pm

    I think it all depends if the social issues fit the company. A company about Dove has always been about inner beauty so the campaigns fit and grow the company. On the other hand company like Playboy making a inner beauty campaign would be way off in left field and would put off most of their traditional audience


  2. Alex Jones
    July 4, 2014 at 3:51 am

    One has to understand how the human mind works, which is by association. The idea and the product may rationally have no connection, but the human mind is irrational, it only needs the story makers to bridge the connection as Always has done. People are talking about Always, the idea they expressed in their advertising is helping the consumer love their product rather than similar products. When you have two similar competing products and an indifferent consumer, the campaigns that link into ideas the consumer cares about can load the dice in favour of the product associated with the idea.


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