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Going All In: Advice for brands who want to play in the social issue space

Amid all the chaos around the government shutdown last week, another high-profile story was buzzing around almost everyone at Media Cause’s news feeds, inboxes, and Slack channels: the Gillette ad on toxic masculinity. It was covered by Time. Slate. Vox. Glamour. GQ. Forbes. CNN. All the major advertising pubs and mainstream news-makers had something to say about it, and most of it wasn’t pretty. The bulk of the mudslinging was around whether or not the ad’s message was positive and enlightened in its encouragement of men to step up and “find their best”–or if it was offensive in its stereotyping of some men as “bad” in the first place.

As a full-service digital agency that works to create real impact for nonprofits, social enterprises, and purpose-driven organizations, we got caught up in a slightly different debate:

Do high-profile, high-revenue consumer brands like Gillette, or even Nike, have the right to play in the social issue space? If they do, what’s the entry fee for having a valid seat at the table–and how should we really be measuring their success at affecting actual change?

Eric Facas, Media Cause’s Co-Founder and CEO, and Amy Small, VP/Creative and Brand Strategy, sat down to share their perspectives:

Eric Facas Amy Small

Eric: Social justice campaigns from big brands and corporations like these are not new to the industry, or to us as an agency. We’ve seen and done this stuff for years, and have a ton of perspective. To me, any attempt by an old school brand to use their ad spend and influence to address important social issues should be applauded, not picked apart by pundits and Monday morning quarterbacks. It’s a risk for a big brand to take, and that risk should be recognized.    

Amy: The approach they took was smart, too. Leveraging the equity of their their 30-year old brand mantra, “the best a man can get,” but flipping the construct, gave them solid footing to enter the conversation–reflecting on what they’ve said and stood for throughout the last three decades, and realizing it’s time for a change. It’s not as “off brand” or out of left field as a lot of critics would like to argue. Gillette is a cultural icon of masculinity in a lot consumers’ minds, so this conversation feels like a natural one for them to be part of.

Eric: Agreed. I have no issue at all with what Gillette is saying. In fact, I don’t really understand how anyone can be against a message of “don’t be a bad person.” But where the effort starts to fall short for me is in what they’re doing, or I guess, what they’re not doing: there is literally no consumer engagement baked into the campaign, which is a huge missed opportunity.

Amy: For coming out with such a powerful narrative and position in the video, the landing page that’s supposed to dive deeper into their position and their bigger picture effort falls amazingly short, on pretty much every front. It seems like an afterthought in terms of design and messaging, and it doesn’t offer any way for people to get involved in what Gillette is asking them to do, beyond just talking about it over the water cooler.

Eric: The bottom of the campaign page includes links to Gillette’s social media channels with the main call to action, “Follow How Men Are Taking Action.” Unfortunately, there are no men taking action here, just Gillette re-posting their video and a whole lot of vitriol in the fan comments.

Amy: I do want to give them credit for their $1M a year donation. Making some kind of impact is almost always better than taking a seat on the sidelines. But for a brand like Gillette that spends $7M annually to have its name on a football stadium, they could have, and should have, done more.

Eric: No question, the contribution is a great first step. But if a brand is going to take a risk like this, it should be just as concerned with the social payoff as the retail payoff. If we were working on an initiative like this, I think we would have come at it very differently, with a ton of ideas to extend the reach of the campaign and engage with people in a positive way to bring them into the effort along with us.

One simple idea: why not piggyback on the social #MCM (Man Crush Monday) trend by tagging and sharing guys who are already exemplifying positive values and actions in their everyday lives: good dads, role models in the community, role models in the public eye? All that takes is some great social community management.

Or go bigger with a “Best Men” Wall of Fame microsite that highlights these role models. Maybe there’s a nomination mechanism, with people voting for the best stories to drive even more engagement.

Either way, there’s a tangible impact story here–direct participation, and the cultural ripple effect of celebrating everyday people doing upstanding things in our society. Both paths get people involved, and create a two-way dialogue vs. a one-way statement.

Amy: Let’s go even bigger. Maybe the nominations, voting, or social sharing could trigger donation matching, increasing Gillette’s pledge to Boys & Girls Clubs. That works to answer the “what’s in it for me?” question of why consumers should care or participate. People always want to feel good about their choices, whether it’s buying something or supporting something. By adding a monetary element to the mix, they’re not not just getting warm fuzzies from aligning with a mission, but playing an active role in activating it.

Or, another idea: expand beyond their initial contribution by establishing a longer-term “Gillette Grants for Good” program. Get consumers involved by asking them to nominate other organizations who would benefit from receiving funding for their educational programs.

Now the impact story isn’t just about individuals amplifying the message, but individuals helping to amplify the funds that leads to real change. BTW, that’s also how you build brand loyalty, by making people feel like they’re part of something bigger.

Eric: To that point, we do always have to come back to the reality that at its core, Gillette is a brand that wants to sell something. But there are ways to lean into that that still drive real social impact and get people participating.

Amy: For instance, they could give a portion of profit from every razor sold (mens’ or womens’–because ya know, we shave, too) to support the Boys & Girls Clubs or similar organizations. Then people are opting-in to participating just by purchasing the product. This model isn’t new. Many brands already do this, and it’s a huge differentiator at shelf for a lot of  consumers.

Or why not go beyond monetary contributions by donating Gillette personal care products to shelters? Maybe it’s a “buy one, give one” program. And bonus: no one can debate the merit of those kinds of actions–you’re not going to see public outrage over it. There are a ton of ways for brands to not just talk about change but actually affect it.

Eric: I’m really excited about the conversation here, mostly because it opens up a door for real social impact beyond just the nonprofit space. I want to see more brands taking a stand like this. But it can’t just stop with making the statement itself. If brands are going to tackle social issues, they need to put the message out there, to start the dialogue, but then make sure the right levers are place to give their consumers the power to turn chatter into action. That’s where we can start making real progress on these kinds of issues. And that’s exactly our sweet spot here at Media Cause.

Want to continue the conversation about transforming a powerful point of view on social change into an equally powerful strategy for making that change really happen? Whether you’re a brand or a nonprofit, give us a shout:



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