A Nike Ad featuring American football quarterback Colin Kaepernick is on diplay September 8, 2018 in New York City. (Photo by Angela Weiss / AFP) photocredit: ANGELA WEISS/AFP/Getty ImagesGETTY
Gillette has become the latest brand to choose to take a side on some kind of controversial issue related to the lifestyle the brand supports. In Gillette’s case, it was all about taking on toxic masculinity in the context of the #MeToo movement, exhorting men to “be better.”
They’re not the first brand to go down this road. Nike was the most recent entrant prior to Gillette’s move, by featuring controversial NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick as the latest face of the brand, but even they are not the first brand to take a stand, with REI and their protest of Black Friday consumerism and even Unilever’s Dove Campaign for Real Beauty way back in 2004 both taking on controversial topics. And that’s just counting brands that have taken a stand in the digital age.
I made the case recently that Gillette’s move may be a tipping point for brands: Nike has always been somewhat controversial and “in your face” but the only real pressure Gillette faced going into its Be Better campaign was market pressure – the rise of digital native brands like Harry’s and Dollar Shave Club, which took big bites out of Gillette’s market share. That the brand felt the need to respond by taking a stand on an issue, rather than, say, run a bunch of discounts and mass advertising campaigns, is telling.
If a brand is going to go down this road of taking a stand – and I think the pressure to do so is only increasing – then the company needs to make sure that it’s ready and prepared for the backlash (taking a side also means opposing something else) and also ready for increased scrutiny around the authenticity of their position. To ensure preparedness, here are five essential steps to ensure that taking a stand doesn’t blow up in your face.
1. Identify a cause that has meaning for your customers and synergy with your brand.
This is the most important step. The whole point of this exercise is to add meaning to your brand promise. For example, it would be weird if Gillette had concluded that their new brand commitment was to preserve insect species in the rainforest. Sure, that’s an admirable goal, but what does that have to do with any of the brand promises that Gillette usually makes? There are many other things that Gillette could’ve committed to that mean more for the brand than insects in the rainforest – reducing plastic packaging, or providing essential toiletries to refugees, just to name a few.
The important thing is to identify some kind of need or passion or concern among your customer base, and tap into that with a definitive answer. Gillette did exactly that: there’s been a long debate over “boys will be boys” up to and including #MeToo and beyond. Gillette is a brand that has been built on defining what “manliness” really means. After spending decades promising to be the best that men (read: “real men”) could get, to stay silent on the topic is almost hypocritical.
And yes, this means taking a side. Gillette could’ve opted to double down on equating the brand with “real men” in the old, sexist definition of the term. The company could’ve come out in support of #HimToo instead of #MeToo.
Or they could’ve tried to thread an impossible needle of taking a side without actually taking a side – a kind of “both sides have a point to make.” When you take a side, there is inevitably people on the other side who don’t like it. When you try to have both sides, or not take a side, you just make everyone mad.
2. Examine your current corporate philanthropy to see if it can be leveraged for the new commitment.
A lot of companies already have invested in “corporate giving” and have done so for decades. They look at this idea of taking a stand and say things like, “We already do that, we just don’t feel the need to turn it into a PR campaign.”
These companies are missing the point. Corporate giving is often bland, and by its nature designed not to offend anyone. A lot of times it involves supporting inoffensive national charities like the Red Cross or the United Way, or simply instituting some kind of corporate match, to enable employees to direct where they want giving to go.
This lacks passion, a key ingredient to taking a stand. It also lacks alignment with whatever lifestyle or brand promises the company is making. If you’re in the outdoor business, it’s increasingly difficult to get away with not taking a stand on climate change. If you’re in the jewelry business, it’s pretty disingenuous to not have anything definitive to say about conflict diamonds, or the exploitation and environment degradation of precious metals mining.
It’s okay to start from corporate giving, to see if there is any alignment with activities that your company already does, but it’s fair to expect to find that there is little to no alignment. However, it’s also okay to expect that whatever you’re doing with corporate giving today, you would be able to fold it into the new commitment to taking a stand, so that you’re not continuing both the bland corporate giving and the new, more controversial, commitment.
3. Evaluate your company’s internal consistency in already supporting the cause you’ve selected.
This step is at least as important as the first one, because as soon as the brand takes a stand, your company is going to be analyzed a thousand different ways to make sure you’re living the commitment through and through. For Gillette, one of the immediate questions that came up after the release of the ad was “what does your company look like internally?” Out of 30 executives listed on Proctor & Gamble’s website (the parent company of Gillette), only 9 are women. There is only one African-American, and broadly speaking there are fewer people of color than there are women.
This article, by Sam Forsdick of Compelo, immediately questioned P&G’s gender pay gap, as well as specifically Gillette’s “pink tax” – charging more for women’s products that are effectively the same as men’s, except basically for the color. The article quotes from P&G CEO David Taylor’s comments at the World Economic Forum as well as “a spokesperson for P&G.” The answers Mr. Taylor gave around pay gaps and equality were fine – there is a gap and the company is working to close it, and the first step there is transparency, which the company has tackled by publishing a pay gap report.
The answers the spokesperson gave about the pink tax were not:
“First of all, it is crucial to highlight that shelf prices in store are always set at the full discretion of the retailer. Our products are different based on the differing needs of men and women. Any price comparisons are therefore misleading.”
Rather than acknowledging that the issue exists (or that there is certainly a perception that it exists), and highlighting any kind of transparency that Gillette can provide around price differences or cost differences, the spokesperson deflected. That’s not the way to handle these challenges – if you’re going to take a stand, you need to first own all your company’s warts and expose not only that you have them, but that you know about them and are doing something about them. Most companies want to be defensive or protective – “why would we give our competitors fodder to use against us?” – but that’s not what this is about. This is about your brand being “a better person,” and you can’t improve if you can’t acknowledge your faults. That’s an important part of taking a stand.
Another piece of this, especially for a multi-brand company like P&G, is to make sure that two brands under your umbrella avoid taking opposing stands. Or, at least, that the position one brand takes is something that can be internally consistent across all brands. This is what took down Dove’s very admirable Campaign for Real Beauty, when it was revealed that Unilever, Dove’s parent, was also the parent company for Axe, which at the time was running about the most sexist ads of the time period. All it took was someone with some video editing skills, and the juxtaposition of the two messages, and Unilever looked very exploitative. They eventually repositioned (Axe), but the Dove campaign has never achieved the same momentum since.
4. Make a long-term plan on how to keep the conversation going.
This brand positioning can’t be just a flash in the pan – it has to have a longer term story that can be told. There have to be progress reports and new ways of engaging with consumers on the topic. The good news for P&G is that the company has a history of taking stands across brands. Even Gillette itself has taken controversial positions before, as in 2013 in India when the brand released a campaign in response to the gang-rape and murder of a college student on a bus.
Not having a long-term plan after taking a stand can be almost as bad as not taking a stand to begin with. Iceland, a British supermarket chain, ran into this problem, where they had made a commitment to sustainability regarding palm oil, but had difficulty meeting the objective they had laid out, and then additionally didn’t commit to transparency and on-going reporting on their own progress.
If you plan for the end in mind – and contingency plan for when adjustments might be needed or what to do if something blows up around the topic that you didn’t expect – then you’ll have an easier time along the way.
5. Plan your launch.
Last but not least, after going through all of these other steps, you then can plan your immediate launch. Gillette’s launch – and Nike’s – had enormous uptake in the public conversation. REI’s #OptOutside campaign generated a lot of conversation the first year they launched it. They have not necessarily been able to maintain that visibility over time, but that’s where the long term planning becomes important. It’s enough just to generate conversation when you first take a stand, but that alone is not enough to sustain the conversation, and that’s where commitment to long-term change becomes what separates a “gimmick” or a fad, and wanting to have real impact.
In the end, the goal is real impact. Anything less will be rapidly called out by the customers who are so passionate about the same topic you used to take a stand. Companies have a real opportunity with taking a stand, if they do it right.