Gillette’s new advertisement “We Believe: The Best a Man Can Be” grabs the white-hot #MeToo movement to gain brand relevance, “spark needed conversation,” and “get people to pause and challenge themselves,” according to company management. We fear that instead of granting the brand renewed relevance, the ad created a brand risk event that now needs to be managed.
There is a broader trend toward redefining the role of the corporation from provider of products and services to champion for social issues. Examples abound: Dick’s Sporting Goods making a stand on gun control, Nike on Black Lives Matter, PayPal on inclusion. NPR calls it a “new kind of corporate machismo, volunteering to march bravely into the culture wars.” BlackRock CEO Larry Fink called for corporations to leverage their leadership to solve pressing social problems.
But this is not one-size-fits-all. Important differences exist in each broader trend and in the credentials of the companies trying to freshen their brand’s cultural wardrobe. A brand can’t just borrow a movement, bolt it onto their message, and claim success. Without careful execution and credibility, that amounts to blatant appropriation of cultural capital. Contemporary consumers know it when they see it. Pepsi’s “Live for Now” ad starring A-lister Kendall Jenner lasted but 24 hours before it was pulled from the airwaves with a rare written apology. The ad was panned for its depiction of a fun and frivolous street demonstration in which a white woman supermodel armed with a can of Pepsi soothes away all concerns of social injustice. Pepsi didn’t intend to belittle the Black Lives Matter movement, but authenticity is needed to counter the risk of blatant coattailing. Done poorly, this can cause brand risk events that damage reputations and company valuations.
This is where Gillette made missteps.
At first glance, the Gillette brand had the necessary customer cred to serve as qualified broker in the #MeToo dialogue. With over 50 percent market share and a predominantly male customer base, gender identity has historically been part of Gillette’s brand promise. Even so, a legitimate play in the cultural game requires authenticity at the level of the brand’s DNA. To invest in the #MeToo movement, the brand needs a clean on-ramp of subject matter expertise and brand heritage engagement on the issues. That’s where Gillette was lacking. The brand’s prior expressions tended toward a definition of alpha masculinity. Note the brand’s former campaign tagline: “The Best a Man Can Get,” ending on the acquisitive “get”—subtly hinting at the typically male characteristics of “providing” and “acquiring.” The prominent naming rights on Gillette Stadium further complicate matters by ties to a sport steeped in controversy and teeming with associations of aggressive and ultracompetitive masculinity.
Cultural trends are complex phenomena. For any given trend, there are varying degrees of resonance, different interpretations among subgroups, more and less risk of audience bifurcation, and heterogeneity in the composition of advocates and detractors. As trends evolve, they pick up subtrends along the way. #MeToo has accumulated conversations associated with toxic masculinity. While a simple analysis of #MeToo supports near universal embrace of the movement’s intentions, the trend is nuanced and complex, with subtle warning signs about backlash. This needle has to be threaded carefully.
We’re left to wonder about Gillette’s analysis of issues alignment between the brand and the movement. Did Gillette plan for possible activism and backlash? The potential for boycotts among a traditional and loyal user base? The reactions of millennials? The split of their audience down the second-order issue of male toxicity?
If you are going to grab a hot-button issue like the #MeToo movement, you have to get it pitch-perfect. There are so many ways to go wrong and Gillette found plenty of criticism. Preachy tonality. The brand on a soapbox. Stereotyping. Finger-pointing at a target audience that has long supported the brand.
Compare Gillette’s approach to Dove’s “Campaign for Real Beauty.” When Dove asked fathers during the Super Bowl to “talk with their daughters before the beauty industry did,” the brand did so on the authority of a sponsored university research program designed to understand women’s self-perceptions.
Dove’s campaign to enable confidence in young women and change the cultural dialogue around what it means to be beautiful was holistic. It included conversations on late night TV talk shows, a canvas of billboards, short films, and a corporate social responsibility partnership with the Girl Scouts and women’s foundations. Everything built on a 100-year heritage of brand communications that starred not supermodels but real women.
For Dove, this attachment to the issue of female beauty was not appropriation: it was a relevant and credible story for the brand. (It all worked wonderfully until a citizen ad exposed Dove’s parent company, Unilever, as a parent also for Axe, one of the most misogynistic personal care brands of all time.)
And how about Nike’s “Believe in Something” campaign? Nike has a long pedigree of courting controversy with socially risky—and successful—marketing going back decades. In 1988, Nike tackled ageism with 80-year-old runner Walt Stack. In 1993, it addressed racial discrimination with the “I am not a role model” campaign featuring Charles Barkley. In 1995, it advocated for women’s rights with its “If You Let Me Play” ads. These credentials provided a solid foundation for Nike to embrace a calculated risk with its 30th anniversary “Just Do It” effort featuring NFL lightning rod Colin Kaepernick. Nike was able to once again enter the cultural conversation with an effort credited with successful social issue engagement, and it did what marketing is supposed to do: increase sales.
Nike had authority to command its audience to “believe in something, even if it risks sacrificing everything.” While Gillette’s viewers have been asking what razors have to do with toxic masculinity, Nike’s spot used the language and culture of sport. The spirit of “Just Do It” was reinterpreted in a new cultural light.
This all leads to a central question: is there an inspiring way to incorporate the #MeToo” message in advertising? We think so.
Egard Watches is hardly a well-known powerhouse brand like Gillette. The small Swiss watchmaker rapidly produced an effective and stirring ad. “What Is a Man” depicts men fighting fires, caring for children as fathers, and protecting families as soldiers. Each image is punctuated with a researched and related fact such as “Men comprise over 97% of all war fatalities.” They act as intuitively true counterpoints to politically correct narratives that are often divisive and negative. Egard says: “Now is not the time to put men down. Now is the time to build them up.”
That’s an inspirational and uplifting message, harnessing the energy of #MeToo (and Gillette’s notable stumble) constructively. Egard’s ad garnered 1,566,765 views on YouTube in less than 24 hours, with a like/dislike ratio of 75 to 1. A majority of comments stand not just in support of Egard, but as backlash against Gillette.
For Gillette, #MeToo and a slippery slide into toxic masculinity damaged brand equity. Perhaps more troubling, the foray has devolved into a brand risk event needing board-level attention, energy, and investment—and enhanced security to protect the Grey creative team against alleged hate mail and death threats. More socioeconomic rigor and a disciplined analysis would have likely led Gillette to a different, socially positive message that the brand could have delivered more convincingly.
Susan Fournier, Allen Questrom Professor and Dean at Boston University Questrom School of Business, can be reached at email@example.com. Patrick Marrinan, Marketing Scenario Analytica cofounder and managing principal, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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