Commentary

Social Puts A Backbone Into Brands

There's a new calculus happening in conference rooms across the country as CMOs work with their teams to hone the brand message are asking, "Is it worth taking a stand on issues, even if we piss off part of the public?" 

More and more, the answer is yes. Indeed brands, emboldened by their digital connection with consumers, are committing to not just appeal to consumer's lifestyle in order to sell products. Instead, they are placing bold bets as an active player in shaping a culture that aligns with their products. 

And with that comes risks. The evidence is abundant: Sam Adams pulling its sponsorship of the Boston St. Patrick's Day parade over LGBT issues; Chevrolet's inclusion of gay families in several spots, or Coke's 60-, and then 90-second, "It's Beautiful" in all its multi-lingual splendor. 

"Advertising reflects the mores of society but it does not influence them," David Ogilvy famously once said. Apparently, that wasn't the guidance for Coke's multi-lingual version of "America The Beautiful."

Within minutes of its airing during Super Bowl XLVII, the backlash was taking shape. "Speak English or go home," one message said. "Screwed up a beautiful song. No Coke for my family," said another. A Fox News commentator on Twitter went so far as to say that Coke had become the official soft drink of illegal immigrants.

So what's behind this shift to bold statements rather than middle-of-the-road positioning?

Social media. The same channel that delivers the torrent of backlash is also providing the proof necessary for brands to take a stand. By keeping a close ear on the comments consumers share prolifically online, brands can see for themselves that the public isn't nearly as divided as politicians would lead a casual observer to believe.

"My sense of it is that [brands] have genuinely embraced the total market concept," says Margaret Duffy, head of advertising at the University of Missouri School of Journalism. "They think the publicity will be mostly helpful, and are responding to the increasing heterogeneity of the marketplace – globally and in the U. S."

Admittedly, this isn’t an overnight development. Ads have been a battleground in the culture wars going back more than 50 years. Civil rights organizations met repeatedly with agencies and marketers in the early 1960s to get African-Americans cast in mainstream ads, and not just in supporting roles.

So in 1963 when Art Linkletter in a sponsored moment on his game show asked a black woman in his audience her opinion of a Lever brand detergent, marketing execs held their breath, hoping it wouldn't upset white viewers.

‘‘We are not trying to create change,’’ a Lever executive told the trade press, ‘‘we’re trying to reflect it.’’

Coke tried a similar tone after the first airing of its Super Bowl commercial. But then, perhaps embolden by the way social media shouted down comments by critics, the brand doubled-down for the opening ceremonies of The Olympics. Coke released a longer version of the ad, opening on type that said, "E Pluribis Unum," the line found on our currency that means out of many, one. 

Coke is by no means alone; brands are riding the wave of support they get for taking a stand. Whether it is multiracial families rallying to Cheerios when racists savaged its commercial on YouTube, or the vast outpouring of support JCPenney when it rejected threats of a boycott and stood behind spokeswoman Ellen DeGeneres, marketers are seeing a bump when they venture into the debate.

So how does a brand know that it can play in this space? Listen, listen, listen. Brand planners can certainly talk with consumers and pour over research, but there's no substitute for the fire hose of unfettered data that comes from social media. By exploring what people are saying away from the brand pages, marketers can get a strong sense of how vocal its market is when it comes to causes.

In the end, Mizzou's Duffy thinks it boils down to marketers embracing their role in a highly connected society. "Bottom line," she said, "if you’re in advertising, you’re radically in the culture business. And ads will both shape and mirror larger trends."

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