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Engaged communication: Potential risks and rewards communicating socially relevant topics

Engaged communication: Potential risks and rewards communicating socially relevant topics

#metoo – one of the best-known campaigns in the history of modern communication – has affected the fates of many people and companies. It has taught us a lot about inequality and sexism in the workplace and of the need to constantly promote respect for diversity. The #metoo campaign has changed us all. What is its take-home message for contemporary marketing communications?

Has #metoo made marketing see the light? It certainly opened its eyes wider, helping marketers notice socially excluded consumers. Corporate social responsibility began with the view that there is more to companies than profit maximization. Business organizations have great social impact and the power to promote specific values. The #metoo movement and the feminist trends in our culture provide companies with opportunities to make informed decisions about whether or not their marketing should promote values in addition to advertising products and services. In today’s world, this may well mean siding with a minority. And not just women, as there are many other social groups and communities that are overlooked in public debate and deprived of their rights. Society, and that’s both people and brands, needs the #minority hashtag.

The Last Ever Issue: an alternative image for women

I liked the somewhat cynical opinion of a Guardian journalist, whose overview of feminist trends in contemporary marketing included the statement: “The advertising industry, once bent on selling us sex is now selling us its disgust with sexism.” She did have a point, although on closer examination, one will notice that sex is far from gone from marketing messages. Admittedly though, a trend of stigmatizing sexism is developing in parallel. Nothing illustrates this better than the well-known “The Last Ever Issue” campaign that has won a Grand Prix in the Cannes. In cooperation with the Gazeta Wyborcza daily and the BGŻ BNP Paribas bank, the VLMY&R advertising agency came up with a brilliant plan to showcase the evolution of today’s marketing and of the approach to socially relevant issues. Twój Weekend was an adult magazine popular in Poland in the 1990s. The idea was to buy it after it was put up for sale on the Allegro auction website and shut it down. The farewell issue no longer depicted nude women but rather women that were independent, creative and strong. Concept won the main prize in the Glass category focusing on works that challenge gender biases and break up stereotypes of both women and men in marketing.

Rise of independent femininity 

“The Last Ever Issue” campaign showed how marketing communication can be used to reverse stereotypes. Disclosures of the harmfulness of gender stereotypes are a theme running strong through several global brands that had opted for spreading a pro-feminine message even before #meetoo. One of the most recognizable communication strategies came from Dove. The Dove Real Beauty campaign had already been around for a decade. The brand’s body lotion was sold with the message that everyone – regardless of appearance, age and race – is entitled to be themselves. Pantene successfully campaigned with the “Sorry, Not Sorry” commercial showing women who are always apologetic, be it at work, at home, with friends and strangers. Always’ #LikeAGirl sanitary pad campaign was a resounding success, winning the company many industry awards. Moving on from independent femininity campaigns, it is worth recalling an idea from ​​Airbnb. Nine days after President Trump ordered the closure of borders to refugees, Airbnb aired the commercial “We Accept”. It showed people of diverse ethnicities with the slogan: “We believe no matter who you are, where you are from, who you love or who you worship, we all belong. The world is more beautiful the more you accept. “

How it is done

How should a company or brand decide to take a stance on social issues? This is not easy as a marketing campaign will always be bigger than a single supportive post on social media. Several factors come into play here. All companies and their brands are part of their economic and social environments, operating in specific cultural, political and economic contexts, entwined in a complex network of relationships. For this reason, a strategy of a brand’s engagement in social issues runs a number of risks of which you should be aware. These certainly include possible condemnation from groups whose views differ from your standpoint. In extreme cases, consumers may go as far as to boycott a brand. You will also risk having your message perceived as ingenuine, opportunistic and inconsistent with the brand’s prior views. Another, and one that is very likely to happen, is that your campaign will turn into a long-term commitment once the target group gets to expect that your company continue to consistently uphold its position. In for a penny, in for a pound. Not all brands remember this.

Change begins in your own backyard

Assume, however, that a worthy idea has been circulating in corporate hallways for quite some time causing ferment among the workers and management, ultimately making it to the board. If this is indeed the case, you can put it down as a strength on your “strengths and weaknesses” list. The workforce support test is crucial for decisions to involve a brand in promoting specific values. Artificially produced ideas that run counter to the workers’ prevailing sentiment and contradict the views “in the air” in the company, are doomed to fail. The causes you choose to support need to be picked carefully as they should be a corollary of the company’s DNA. It is paramount to look into “one’s own backyard”. A progressive campaign that has no workforce support carries a considerable risk of failure.

Everything is dialogue

The decision to have the company support a social change trend cannot be made on an impulse or by choosing to do so only because “it must be done” or, even worse, only because “others do it”. Ask yourself the basic question of why your company should speak out on a certain social issue. Without answering it honestly in full awareness of why you are making your choice, you are likely to make a mistake. The stance and actions taken on behalf of the brand will soon be verified by your target group and the people your campaign seeks to protect. Keep in mind also that by propagating ideas of social importance, you will engage in dialogue with people on both sides of the issue. You will become part of a social, if not global, debate on the matter of your choice. Metaphorically speaking, once you join others on the stage, you too will end up in the spotlight. Before a company speaks out on a social issue, it should assess its resources in the field, and that is both its competencies and relevant knowledge as well as other resources, such as its funding, that are necessary to pursue the campaign. You will need to decide how to respond to attacks from your opponents, how to answer media inquiries and whether you will be able to continue the dialogue with other stakeholders, such as NGOs.

Test the moods beforehand

Before making your decision, you should also examine the public perception of your issue and make sure you are not accidentally perpetuating stereotypes. Sprout, an American social media campaign agency, has surveyed 1,000 people, whom it asked about their views on brand involvement in politics and socially relevant issues. 66 percent of the respondents wanted brands to take a public stand on immigration, human rights and race equality. This finding can be invaluable for all American managers grappling with dilemmas and uncertainties as to whether they should incorporate current social issues into their marketing campaigns or even base their campaigns on them entirely.

New communication tools, and especially social media, allow one to carry a message across to virtually any number of people. The emotional nature of socio-political issues guarantees high visibility to any campaign that brings up such topics. Brands stand to gain a great deal by skillfully handling key social issues, but they can also lose painfully. Authenticity counts, even if it might at times appear to be an obsolete or cliché concept. Every time you involve your brand in a fight for women, men, refugees, children, sexual minorities or the environment, make sure you are unconditionally genuine and honest.

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