CommPro / Alter Agents

Are Brands Being Genuine in Their Ethical Campaigns?

August 27, 2015

Rebecca BrooksBy Rebecca Brooks, Partner and Co-Founder, Alter Agents

Honey Maid, the venerable brand of graham crackers whose very name evokes sepia- toned memories of the good ole days, launched a cutting-edge advertising campaign last year that is a model for all other brands seeking to be genuinely “genuine.” We’ve all heard that the evolving, self-aware consumer wants brands to be more “real” and “authentic,” but what does that mean?

For some time now those of us in the marketing-advertising-PR industry have known that business as usual doesn’t cut it anymore in building or burnishing brand awareness. Shopping is no longer solely about the best bargain, brand loyalty or a traditional value proposition. The purchasing experience goes beyond offering a different product for every market segment. (That’s so 20th century GM.) Driven by the 66-million strong Millennial generation, consumers now want to see themselves represented in the brand. A powerful brand reinforces the shopper’s own sense of self as well as accurately telegraphs their values to others. And, it needs to speak the truth.

To traditional Madison Avenue style advertising, that might sound like so much kumbaya. But caveat vendit! Ignoring the desires – no, the feelings – of the contemporary consumer is no longer an option, whether you manufacture graham crackers or smart phones. In today’s social media -rich environment, where consumer feedback is instantaneous and activist groups and audience-hungry bloggers are poised to strike, the challenge for brands is to make their ethics known in a way that doesn’t just seem self-serving or “me, too,” but rather, genuinely authentic.

How did Honey Maid manage to strike the right balance between marketing and ethics? It launched an advertising campaign built around diversity. In its TV commercials, there were all kinds of families — a rockers, a single dad, an interracial couple, a military family and one with two dads and their son. The tagline for the campaign made a point of underscoring exactly where Honey Maid was going with this: “No matter how things change, what makes us wholesome never will. Honey Maid. Everyday wholesome snacks for every wholesome family. This is wholesome.”

After watching the most popular, prime-time family TV show in America, “Modern Family,” all of that might seem pretty benign. To our collective credit, depicting an interracial family in a TV commercial or TV show hardly elicits a blink. However, the two-dad family was unheard of in national brand advertising because… well, the best answer was because it just wasn’t done.

Yes, the two-dad commercial elicited a firestorm from a small but vocal group of viewers. (No doubt, the “wholesome” tagline got in their craw as much as the depiction of two gay men as parents.) But rather than retreat or hold their tongue, Honey Maid did something extraordinary. It created a social media campaign featuring an online video under the banner “This is wholesome, a commercial that celebrates all families.” The video featured two artists creating an original work of art from messages both positive and negative about the campaign from consumers. The spot ends by telling us that the “one thing that matters when it comes to family [is] love.”

Now, contrast that with a recent marketing initiative by Coca Cola to promote the argument that the nation’s obesity epidemic is really a matter of Americans not exercising enough, rather than the foods they eat. This effort to deflect criticism about the role their sugary drinks play in obesity, not to mention Type 2 diabetes, is destined to end badly for the brand. Why? Because it doesn’t speak the truth. Any doctor not being paid by Coca Cola will tell you that while exercise is an important part of an overall fitness regimen, losing and maintaining weight is largely a function of calorie control.

The challenge for brands today is to cut through the clutter of competing messages and make their ethics known to the new consumer. First and foremost, however, communications have to be backed up by action that reflects the consumer’s values. For those bold enough to embrace the new consumer sensibility, the rewards can be rich. A study by Corpedia demonstrates that companies deemed “ethical” by consumers are performing dramatically better than competitors. Kumbaya, indeed.

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