Brands using social media for social activism: It’s a delicate tightrope to walk. Done right, a company can express its values in an authentic way that connects with more customers and has a positive social impact. Done wrong, it can come off as opportunistic and phony—just another company latching onto an important social justice issue to sell more stuff.
It’s also a bit risky. To make a real impact, a company has to take a stand when that really means something—not when everyone already agrees, but when there’s a significant issue of justice or morality whose time has come. Taking that stand means there might be backlash and controversy. Brands that launch a social media campaign for social good will do best when they are truly expressing a shift or recommitment to their own internal values, even in the face of naysayers.
Here are two examples of brands tackling controversial issues without holding back:
“The Best Men Can Be”
The brand: Gillette
The campaign: The men’s razor and shaving products giant is well known for its tagline and jingle: “Gillette: The best a man can get.” (Take a look at this Super Bowl ad to get a feel for what that looked like in the 80s!)
In January of this year, Gillette embarked on a new campaign to redefine how its brand promotes manliness, starting with a powerful video entitled “We Believe” which encourages men to challenge toxic masculinity and the notion of “boys will be boys.” The video’s scenes, depicting bullying, sexual harassment, and other issues of gender inequality, contrast with examples of men stepping in to challenge harmful norms.
As the company states on its website: “It’s time we acknowledge that brands, like ours, play a role in influencing culture. And as a company that encourages men to be their best, we have a responsibility to make sure we are promoting positive, attainable, inclusive, and healthy versions of what it means to be a man.”
The video announced Gillette’s commitment to take two new steps in promoting a different masculine ideal as part of its “The Best Men Can Be” initiative:
1) A modernized approach to its branding in which it pledges “to actively challenge the stereotypes and expectations of what it means to be a man everywhere you see Gillette. In the ads we run, the images we publish to social media, the words we choose, and so much more.”
2) A commitment to donate $1 million per year for the next three years to “non-profit organizations executing programs in the United States designed to inspire, educate, and help men of all ages achieve their personal ‘best’ and become role models for the next generation.” The brand’s first partnership is with the Boys & Girls Clubs of America.
The impact: In its first 24 hours, the video garnered more than 5 million views (as of March 15, it has over 20 million). But it also attracted very loud and vocal naysayers who protested that Gillette’s message of redefined masculinity was insulting and disparaging towards all men. They disliked the video in large numbers—almost 2:1. However, according to Ace Metrix, 65 percent of viewers indicated the Gillette ad made them more/much more likely to purchase from the brand, and two-thirds rated the message the “single best thing” about the ad.
Gillette is standing firm in its position, with its parent company’s CFO Jon Moeller stating in a CNN Business article that despite little to no impact on sales, the online ad is part of an effort to “connect more meaningfully with younger consumer groups,” which has “generated significant conversation…and a huge number of impressions.”
“This Coke is a Fanta”
The brand: The Coca-Cola Company
The campaign: Coke Brazil took a unique approach to combating homophobia during 2018 LGBTQ Pride celebrations by subverting a colloquial saying that is normally disparaging towards gays and making it a fun and empowering phrase.
In Brazil, the phrase “essa Coca é Fanta” (“that Coke is a Fanta”) is used to mock or tease someone for being or appearing gay (similar to “I think he’s playing for the other team” in English).
Coke flipped the script by literally producing Cokes that were actually Fantas—bottling the orange soda in a Coke can that read, “Essa Coca é Fanta dai?” (“That Coke is a Fanta—so what?”) The limited edition can was released on International LGBT Pride Day and became a hit at Brazil’s iconic Carnival events.
The impact: LGBTQ customers and allies were thrilled with the campaign. According to this case study, Coke spent $0 on paid media and garnered over 1 billion media impressions. It even changed the Google searches for the phrase from insulting homophobic slurs to empowering and proud terms.
Successful brands do more than just sell services or products—they continually strive to be good corporate citizens as well. This can come in many forms, from product development to public awareness campaigns. Done right, a social media campaign for social good is an excellent way for a company to express its mission and connect with customers over shared values.
Social good campaigns also give companies the opportunity to stand out from the crowd by standing up for a social change issue in its early days—that is, when it still might be a bit controversial, but it’s the right thing to do.