In today’s digital world, it’s easier than ever for brands to voice an opinion. Be it through social media, viral videos, or display ads, online channels offer brands endless opportunities to connect with consumers whilst addressing social issues.

But just because they can, does it mean they should?

If the 2018 Edelman Earned Brand study is anything to go by, then yes. Edelman suggests that 64% of consumers now make purchases based on belief – in other words, actively selecting, switching or avoiding brands depending on where they stand on the social or political issues that matter to them.

Furthermore, the study reveals that more than half of consumers believe brands can do more to solve social issues than the government. Consumers want brands to represent them, and they will vote with their wallets… so where’s the catch?

A risk worth taking?

One brand that has made success of speaking out is the New York Times. In 2017 they launched “The Truth Is Hard” – a campaign aimed at highlighting the newspaper’s dedication to quality journalism in a climate of fake news and rising anti-media rhetoric, whilst simultaneously increasing digital subscriptions.

The campaign included TV, print and digital ads – each minimalistic in design, featuring sentences starting with “The truth is…” followed by a succession of thought-provoking statements.

After running the campaign on TV, they launched a series of short films showcasing the lengths their journalists go to to report on breaking stories. These were published across social media and boosted whenever their respective subjects were trending in the news.

To ensure conversions continued, ads were also served to users who had reached their free article limit. The campaign delivered not only in terms of brand awareness, but also new subscribers. It earned over 5 billion impressions and passed over 2 million digital-only subscribers in the second quarter: a bigger result than any other news organisation had achieved before.

Nike’s 2018 “Dream Crazy” campaign also shows how standing up for social issues can promote commercial success. The video ad featured Colin Kaepernick – a NRL quarterback who famously refused to stand for the national anthem in protest against police brutality and racism in the US – and introduced the slogan “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything. Just do it.”

Response to the ad was huge. Certain audiences claimed the campaign was “anti-American” and exploitative, with some threatening to boycott the brand. Donald Trump even weighed in, claiming that the ad sent a “terrible message”.

But this initial fallout proved to be insignificant, as the campaign clearly resonated with Nike’s core customer base. Company shares soared in the weeks following its debut and the brand enjoyed its third-straight quarter of growth. CEO Nick Parker proudly announced after that brand engagement reached an “all-time high”.

Silence is golden

Taking a stance on social issues does not come without risk, however. As YouGov’s Head of Data Products Amelia Brophy points out, just as many consumers are likely to be turned off or react cynically towards an idea than those who stand behind it.

Gillette’s “The Best Men Can Be” sparked backlash when it addressed the subject of toxic masculinity in January 2019. The YouTube video became one of the most disliked of all time and prompted a wave of negative brand sentiment.

The campaign asks, “Is this the best men can be?” – a spin on Gillette’s familiar slogan. It plays out scenes of misogyny, sexual harassment and male aggression, followed by examples of men preventing such behaviour or calling out their peers.

Many commentators labelled the campaign “accusatory” and urged consumers to switch to rival brands. Marketing Week columnist Mark Ritson likened the campaign to “the kind of film we were forced to watch in school” and suggested that Gillette may have made their commercial situation worse.

Don’t piggyback

One of the main criticisms brands such as Gillette have received is that they are piggybacking onto popular social issues in order to stay relevant, therefore the campaigns are coming across as insincere.

So why does it work for some brands but not so well for others?

Personally, I think the brands who have received a more positive reaction are those who address social issues closely aligned with their product or service. Whilst Nike featured a controversial sports star, the underlying message it delivered – to believe in something even if it means sacrificing everything (as Kaepernick did) – is certainly relevant to what it sells: sport.

Similarly, the New York Times addressed social issues that are particularly pertinent to the world of journalism. But for certain audiences, it seems there was too much disconnect between the social issues raised in Gillette’s ad and the product it sells and the ideals it has built is brand upon.

Know your customer

Another reason outspoken ads like Nike’s worked so well is that they resonated with their target audience: in this case, liberal-leaning millennials.

Whilst addressing social issues can be a great opportunity for a brand to attract new audiences, it is important that they do not alienate their existing one. I believe Gillette’s intentions were in the right place, but by and large, the negative response came from their core customer base: males who want their razor brand to present them with ideals rather than something that could be construed as criticism.

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Natalie Tobin

Natalie is a Digital Planner Analyst at iProspect Sydney, where she works across search, paid social and display marketing.