In November 2018, we predicted that CMOs would target societal tensions to gain an advantage in competitive markets. Nike’s 30th-anniversary campaign featuring controversial activist Colin Kaepernick would serve as an opening salvo for other brands to just do it. And so they did. AdAge’s “Campaign of the Year” is producing a tapestry of evidence that CMOs are willing to fuse politics with profit. Companies struggling to energize their brands will differentiate by targeting consumers who favor blending values with their purchase decisions.
It began with Pepsi, which attempted (and failed) to position its product as a social unifier in an ad with model Kendall Jenner. Patagonia went so far as to sue President Trump over his administration’s infringement on public lands; it has also refused to sell finance and tech companies its so-called “Power Vest” (the Patagonia Nano Puff) with an embroidered corporate logo. These are symbolic stances that dramatically influence consumers’ choices.
What are we learning as our prediction comes true? First, you need to meet certain requirements for this strategy to be effective: cause, context, and a distinct connection with your target consumer. Let’s compare two examples:
- Gillette. Earlier this year, Gillette decided to slow its bleeding market share by leveraging #MeToo and taking a public stance on so-called toxic masculinity, leaving behind 100 years of exuberant manliness. While the general subtext of the ads — racial and gender equality and bullying — are relatively uncontroversial to mainstream Americans, the delivery of the ads sparked both outrage and inspiration.
- Bumble. Dating app Bumble’s “The Ball is in Her Court” campaign featured Serena Williams telling female viewers in a Super Bowl ad, “Don’t wait to be told your place; take it.” Don’t think this is explicitly political? Not so fast, says Bumble Chief Brand Officer Alex Williamson in an interview: “We’re always challenging the status quo, and with that, it can definitely upset people, but for us, always as a platform, people who are upset by our message probably shouldn’t be on our platform anyway.”
While Gillette’s message came off as inauthentic, Bumble was founded on the premise of empowering its female users. The company took that commitment up a level by promoting its campaign during the world’s most-watched sporting event, which has a predominantly male audience.
Love or hate these messages from these prominent brands, it’s the upstart, socially aware direct-to-consumer (DTC) brands that are showing us that they aren’t making these calls based on morals alone. Recognizing the benefits of connecting with consumers on an emotional level, DTC CMOs purposefully take public stances on social issues to tap into consumer energy. In fact, 62% of consumers want companies to stand up for issues that they are passionate about. And nearly 70% of CMOs who take a public stance on an issue do so because they see it as a way to attract and retain customers.
As increasingly empowered customers demand more than ever from the brands they associate with, CMOs will have to stand for something or risk losing to a brand that will. Even CMOs from traditionally conservative brands, such as JPMorgan Chase’s Kristin Lemkau and GE’s Linda Boff, are taking public stands on behalf of themselves and their brands. They loudly criticized the Consumer Electronics Show for its lack of gender diversity on its keynote panel, with Lemkau explicitly tying her outspoken position back to JPMorgan Chase’s company values.
The upshot? The stakes are too high and markets are too competitive for CMOs to remain on the sidelines. But they can’t dive in blindly: They must identify where their customer and brand values align and then target those specific values to energize their base, deciding carefully where, when, and how loudly to deliver their message.