Are Social Issues a ‘Proven Marketing Tool’ now?

After promoting ‘Like-A-Girl,’ ‘MeanStinks,’ ‘Boss-vs-Bossy,’ ‘SorryNotSorry,’ ‘ShareTheLoad,’… social messages on its Always, Secret, Pantene, Ariel… brands, respectively, P&G is at ‘social issue advertising’ again as it “bravely ignites this dialogue [about ‘toxic masculinity’ as the WSJ put it] with its new Gillette ad and challenges us to do more” as one former P&G colleague put it on LinkedIn.

I will not get into the debate over the message itself.  Nor will I opine on whether ad agency Grey got the execution right (it also did ‘SorryNotSorry’).  You can join millions of viewers and find hundreds of thousands of comments on YouTube already (mostly negative) as well as plenty reviews by newspapers like the Wall Street Journal or by marketing experts.   I provide links below – including to an opinion by Mark Ritson which points out significant and fundamental flaws in the execution of the ad and which I agree with.

What I want to reflect on is why P&G – and mass marketers in general – seem compelled to bring up social issues so frequently now in their marketing.  Has it become – as marketeers might put it – a “proven marketing tool?” – The move to adopt social issues is less sudden and surprising than you might think.  But it is likely a far more involving ‘tool’ than marketeers think – if ever it should be one.

Seeking to trigger ‘buzz’ on as many of its brands as possible is a natural reflex from a mass marketer like P&G.  The company has historically succeeded behind scale-able brand building. The company is all about scaling and has rather forcefully re-committed itself to it in 2016 by culling some 80 brands (or about half), for being too small/not scalable or not compatible with the P&G way of building brands.  That P&G model is the stuff of legend, of course, and the ‘secret sauce’ behind some two dozen billion-dollar brands like the above (and a few more which remain and vie to get there).  That proprietary approach to market to the masses has been honed and codified by generations of P&G Brand Managers and continues to be updated.  My guess is that P&G is at “Brand Building Framework 6.2” by now.  And it is safe to assume that it continues to be based on the belief that a (future) category leader needs to repeatedly communicate that its brand delivers best on the most important benefits consumers need the product to deliver and to do so through whatever media reaches their minds most and most often and at whatever ‘shelf’ they shop at – be it physical, digital or other.  One of P&Gs favorite consultants and a fan – Professor Byron Sharp – talks about dominant “mental and physical availability” and about ads on mass media and mass distribution being the most efficient tools to achieve it.

Not quite in line with Sharp’s assessment, though, it looks like P&G has concluded that “having a higher purpose” has become one of those important benefit dimensions to a majority of consumers and that expressing it by “taking a stance on social issues” in your advertising – and on social media, in particular – is an effective and efficient choice to acquire and communicate that benefit to them.

And who could blame them. They have seen arch-enemy Unilever pioneer the way with Dove’s daring “Real Beauty” campaign for women to gain self-esteem, catapulting the brand to the number one spot across many markets and Beauty product segments.  They have observed UL’s initial struggle but ultimate success in preserving the social equality core that drives the differentiating conversation behind Ben & Jerry’s after the acquisition. Eventually P&G created its own transformative success case study on feminine hygiene brand Always as “Like A Girl” went viral (with the help of some media spend priming).  And the buzz generated after Sheryl Sandberg’s “Leaned In” to praise Pantene’s own “Boss-vs-Bossy” women empowerment message looked promising in giving the rather sickly brand a substantial shot in the arm.

But that last example also flags the dangers of viewing a ‘higher purpose’ as a brand ‘benefit’ like any other and social debate as a productive attention getting device. Pantene did not see a significant business lift and its ‘follow-up message’ (following the P&G model) of “SorryNotSorry” fell flat (I am being nice on both accounts), while the supporting “Lean In’ campaign has faced its own issues behind Sheryl Sandberg’s decline in ‘brand equity’.

What might explain the difference?  In our book “Rethinking Prestige Branding,” Wolf Schaefer and I write about how a brand adopting a purposeful mission can create a powerful desire for people to join it and can make it peerless, and priceless.  But we also demonstrate that capturing this potential takes a lot more than a good ad campaign.  They go ‘above and beyond’ – or ‘über’ in German – and hence our describing them as Ueber-Brands.

The last economic crisis made many question ‘own-more-to-be-more’ consumerism. They started to look for products that are ‘meaningful beyond the material,’ for ‘manufacturers that answer to a purpose beyond making money. They wanted to ‘vote with their credit cards’.  ‘As Seen on TV’ or ‘#1 nationwide’ no longer has the pull it used to – particularly among the influencing crowd.   Mass marketers across industries were- and many still are caught on their back foot struggling as they get accused of ‘pushing products’ and people wander off to ‘new, crafted, organic, local, charitable’, … or otherwise inspired brand with ‘soul.’

Many mass-marketers have caught up to this ‘insight,’ and are ‘putting it to action’ following the type logic and resulting campaigns described above and they are scaling them across markets and their brand portfolio.

Yet, the way in which this ‘putting in action’ happens is also (often subconsciously) evaluated by people as these expressions of ‘higher purpose’ reach them.  Having grown up surrounded by mass marketing, most recognize and see right through the advertising.  They increasingly desire and respond to what many express as ‘authenticity versus advertising,’ which has a lot to do with what a brand and the organization behind it that actually does versus what it says.  This may look like Patagonia telling you that your shipment will arrive late because it gave employees a (paid) day off to join protests against the government’s moves to roll-back environmental protections.   It should not look like an Audi, ‘tackling gender inequality’ in an ad during the Superbowl, just to be ‘found out’ for not having any female members on its board and paying women less.  – That just wasted a few million, at best. … Unless, maybe, if Audi actually acts on the feedback and dramatically changes its behaviors…

In other words, as brand owners consider to add a ‘higher purpose’ or ‘brand beliefs’ to their equity pyramid and to ‘take on causes’ through their marketing, they should – at minimum – make sure that those believes to do clash with actions of the organization behind the brand.  For true, long term, positive impact for the brand and the adopted cause, they need to stick with their believes and champion them by becoming role models.  Always continues its “Epic Battle “#LikeAGirl” across ads but also school education programs, girls-in-sports programs, KeepGirlsInSchool scholarships, TED-Ed collaborations, #EndPeriodPoverty action, Confidence Summits… across all continents and for many years now – An inspiring role model, in many ways.  Much of that is done ‘behind the scenes’, only visible to those who want to know (and they are often important ‘influencers’, of course).  Pantene, meanwhile, seems to have pulled its ‘empowerment ads’ from its YouTube channel. What will the Gillette actions and track record be with the strong but very mixed reactions it receives?

Every brand organization needs to ask itself how it will act on its social  pronouncements and if it can ‘practice what it preaches’ and strive to become a role model. Otherwise it will be better served following Professor Sharp’s thinking and fighting for that ‘physical and mental availability’ when and where people ‘don’t want to get too involved’ and care more about ‘a good product and good value for money.’ And P&G still knows how to do that:  The buzz around Tide’s #Bradshawstain was tremendous … and it wasn’t even about a social issue.



For a more review of what drives the success of purpose-led brands, read our book “Rethinking Prestige Branding – Secrets of the Ueber-Brands” and other articles and case studies on this blog.

Here is the Wall Street Journal critique of the Gillette film and message.  And here is Mark Ritson’s opinion published in Marketing Week pointing out some fundamental shortcomings in the way this ad was executed.

And below is the film itself … and a picture that reflects the kind of perspective criticized in the film,…  taken at a what looks like a Gillette-sponsored event.  Again, the test will lie in the future choices and changes, if any.


March 2019 Update … and Extension?


Gillette is at it again a month later – but this time the deodorants want to put the spotlight on the struggles of many military families to (re-)integrate into civil society with a campaign  headlined “Every Hero Sweats, Some Never Show It.”  Has it forgotten about Toxic Masculinity, already?

In partnership with Operation Homefront, Gillette will donate an “estimated $2.5 million worth of product to military families in need … such as new Gillette Hydra Gel Antiperspirant that provides 48-hour sweat protection with ingredients like aloe and eucalyptus that hydrate skin”, is being reported.

Will this new marketing move deepen the meaningfulness of the Gillette brand in the minds of their core target and society at large or might they hasten what some call ’cause marketing fatigue?’ Might it even be rejected as commercial ‘do-goodism’ and lead to negative perception – particularly among young consumers at the point of market entry? What do you think?  We think a stronger sign of purpose might have been to give that $2.5 million as part of a sustained effort to support the cause and without the mass media fanfare….

Here is the film:


About JP Kuehlwein

JP Kuehlwein is a global business leader and brand builder with a 25+ year track record of translating consumer and brand insights into transformational propositions that win in market. Principal at ‘Ueber-Brands’ a New York consulting firm, he now helps others to elevate brands and make them peerless and priceless. JP also teaches brand strategy at NYU Stern and Columbia Business School and leads the Marketing Institute at The Conference Board, all in New York. Jp previously was Executive Vice President at Frédéric Fekkai & Co, a prestige salon operator and hair care brand and lead brand- and corporate strategy development and execution at multinational Procter & Gamble as Brand Director and Director of Strategy. JP and Wolf Schaefer have co-authored the best-selling books “Rethinking Prestige Branding – Secrets of the Ueber-Brands” which lays out what drives the success of modern premium brands and "Brand Elevation - Lessons in Ueber-Branding" a guide to developing and executing a brand elevation strategy. Find the books here:
This entry was posted in 1 - Mission Incomparable - The first rule is to make your own, 5 - Living the Dream - The bubble shall never burst and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Are Social Issues a ‘Proven Marketing Tool’ now?

  1. Pingback: Purpose and Promotion Don’t Mix Well – Ben & Jerry’s Global Social Mission Officer Dave Rappaport explains | Ueber-Brands™

Make an Ueber-Comment!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s