Brandstanding: how to provoke to assert your purpose

In today’s divisive world, standing for something is no longer enough, you must stand out for what you believe in. Increasingly, brands are pushing the boundaries, challenging the status quo—creating impact by courting controversy.

Why are companies taking this path? One recent study suggests that two-thirds of people believe it is important for brands to take a stand on political issues, and another showed that 64 percent would purchase a product or service based on the brand’s level of activism.

From courageous to audacious, there are more daring campaigns than ever before—touching on a multitude of issues and causes. Our client Libresse, for instance, is a great example of a provocative campaign that wanted to break down the taboo of periods and end period shaming. Their film showcasing period “blood” for the first time, instead of the blue liquid you usually see in commercials, galvanized a much-needed discussion around the topic.

However, provocative campaigns can be tricky. How and when should brands take them on? How do you get them right?

I was fortunate to moderate a panel on this topic at the Holmes Report PRovoke18 summit last week in Washington D.C., where I was joined by Interfuse client Lisa Gibby, VP of Corporate Communications, Nestlé, and H&S client Marco Morante, Founder and Creative Director of Marco Marco. While Lisa and Marco are from two very different brands, it became clear that how they approach provocation and purpose shared many similarities. Here are some of the learnings.

Don’t be provocative for provocation’s sake.
Throughout the discussion both Lisa and Marco agreed that key to being successful with a provocative point of view was coming at it from a place of authenticity. If it isn’t, your consumers and the public at large will smell it a mile off and won’t believe in it (or you); so, you must find the right fit for your brand.

This can be easier for some brands than others. For example, Marco Marco, is a brand that is built on provocation, so when Marco embarked on producing a fashion show at New York Fashion Week with a cast of purely transgender models, it didn’t feel like a gimmick but rather the culmination of years of engaging and working with the community. As Marco himself explained during the panel, “This is my market, these are the people who I sell to… I always felt they were getting underplayed… I wanted to create a moment that was just for them.”

For a huge company like Nestlé, there are opportunities too, as Lisa pointed out, “We are a Swiss company, we take our neutrality pretty seriously. But we will take a stand on issues when they are core to who we are as a master brand, such as climate change… and sometimes we’re provocative because it’s just core to who we are.” She gave guidance to others, reminding everyone of the importance of asking “What are you trying to achieve? Is it really true and authentic to the brand? If it is then you can defend your work.”

Get the right team in from the beginning.
Your provocative campaign may be authentic to your brand, but how do you deliver it in an authentic way that speaks to your target audience? That is dependent on having the right team in from day one, helping to craft it. Marco really hit the nail on the head when he commented, “If you really want to talk about diversity, and include new people in your campaign or whatever it is you’re doing, then those people have to be on your team creating it. The best way to create an atmosphere of dignity and respect is by having that group of people involved from the get-go.”

As brand counselors, it is critical to foster diverse points of view to ensure different perspectives, ideas and opinions are a part of the mix. This means recruiting and hiring from the different genders, races, cultures, religions, economic backgrounds, and schools of thought that truly reflect our society.

Sometimes it’s best to double down than backtrack.
Even if you are coming from an authentic place and have approached the topic with the sensitivity and thoughtfulness it requires, things can still go wrong. Provocative campaigns are just that, provocative. They will likely divide opinion and receive some form of criticism, and they will also make people think. “As much love and care as I put in [to the fashion show] I also got some backlash,” said Marco. “It was definitely a learning experience.”

In many circumstances the action to take is to own it and fast. For Marco, he dealt with the fall out in the following way, “The most important thing was to acknowledge it and be vocal about the mistakes that you made, be forthright and just own it. In that way, you are showing that you have heard the criticisms.”

However, when faced with similar criticism, Lisa noted a Nestlé brand campaign for Lean Cuisine called for a slightly different approach, “Instead of having that kneejerk reaction and reacting right away, we stopped. We did some analysis, we looked at data to see if our consumers were hearing our message. And, in fact, we found that they did hear our message and that it was resonating with our core audience. As a result, we really doubled down on it and felt like it was the right thing for the brand and the business.”

It can be difficult, particularly when under fire for a provocative position, to take a step back and check that you are on track with what you set out to achieve. Yet, it is a vital step to ensure your campaign is on the right track and meeting its objectives. The key is knowing when to double down or when to hold up your hands and admit you got it wrong.

Lisa wisely advised, “You have to have a reactive plan in place in case things go off the rails. You have to be prepared for everything and anything.”

Be in it for the long haul.
Finally, it is not enough to think of provocative campaigns as one offs. As with point one, if they are truly authentic to your brand then it should live on beyond a single moment in time. As Lisa explained, “Being consistent and having a long-term vision of where you are taking it is so important in being successful when you want to leverage purpose.”

Gone are the days when you would see a brand own something and then walk away. People are looking for brands to take a longer and firmer stand on things. As a consumer becomes a fan, and a fan becomes an advocate, it’s your responsibility to live up to what you stand for as a brand.