Manu Prasad
Guest Article

Brand communication: Skin-deep versus skin-in-the-game

Across the world, brands are waking up to the need to be part of larger cultural narratives. But being ‘woke’ brings its own challenges.

‘In these unprecedented times’, brands have been making many efforts to stay relevant by inserting themselves into cultural narratives, but it isn’t that easy. In fact, they are increasingly realising that their plans might actually backfire when they provoke the ‘woke’.

Woke versus Broke

Nike’s path-breaking campaign in 2018, featuring (American football quarterback) Colin Kaepernick, is now a case study for brands taking a stance on matters of societal relevance. But it also had a relatively lesser-known second order consequence. In 2019, Nike was forced to take sides in the Hong Kong protests.

When Daryl Morey, general manager, Houston Rockets (a professional basketball team in the US), tweeted his support for the protesters, China gave the National Basketball Association (NBA) a cold stare. The NBA apologised, and Nike gave an assist by pulling its Houston Rockets merchandise from five stores in Beijing and Shanghai.

It didn’t just end there. Courtesy LeBron James (professional basketball player), with whom Nike has an association worth north of $1 billion. James’s response was that Morey was misinformed, and that “We do have freedom of speech, but there can be a lot of negative things that come with that, too. I don’t think every issue should be everybody’s problem.

Nike took a stance, by staying silent. But having taken an unflinching stance in the US on a 'freedom of expression' issue, Nike’s response to China reflected poorly on the brand. Unsurprisingly, they got called out by quite a few commentators. Nike had its reasons. Its China business was worth $6 billion, having doubled in five years, even as the US sales remained flat.

All the world’s staged

In 'The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life', Erving Goffman uses the metaphor of a theatre to describe human interactions. Backstage is where "the performer can relax; he can drop his front, forgo speaking in his lines, and step out of character." On stage, though, there is a performance to be delivered. These days, thanks to the proliferation of social platforms, the ‘backstage’ is shrinking. We’re always 'on show' for some audience - on Instagram/Facebook/LinkedIn/Twitter, and yes, TikTok.

The same goes for brands as well. Advertising, PR communication, social media content, all ‘performances’ are not just watched, but connected, too, with everything that is known about the brand. Every expression is an impression. Goffman emphasises that the audience is also a part of the performance, and without their tacit agreement, the show would fall apart. Taken together, this means that the option to be selectively woke is disappearing.

Moments of truth

Back in 2017, a three-second body wash ad on Facebook, which featured a Black woman turning into a White woman, almost cost Dove years of 'real beauty' work. It managed to redeem itself by making some smart moves, both tactically and strategically. Things have become more difficult these days. Because ironically, we are all even more touchy in the era of social distancing! And bad news travels faster. All it takes is one status update.

Even as (Amazon's) Jeff Bezos drew applause for “And Dave, you’re the kind of customer I’m happy to lose”, there were questions being asked about the use of Amazon’s tech by police for racial profiling. While resolving that, the company got called out for treatment of workers. It’s not just Amazon. When brands like Uber, Apple, Adidas, etc., take a stance on racism, they are being questioned on the lack of diversity in workforce and leadership. Google and Facebook are even facing employee activism.

Closer home, #BlackLivesMatter, and celebrities endorsing fairness creams make for an interesting Venn diagram. And, it’s not just celebrities. In the name of 'Moment Marketing', many brands have seen their woke moments in the sun rapidly become sunstrokes!

Don’t get me wrong, this is not to say that brands shouldn’t make topical and relevant narratives a part of their messaging strategy. But in an increasingly polarised world, communication is a full contact sport.

Dave or Dove, the message is clear, brand communication is no longer a skin-deep game, it is about having skin in the game. As consumers move upwards in the hierarchy of needs, their expectation from brands is moving down - in a direction that’s familiar to marketers. Rather than just creating awareness and interest on things that matter, consumers desire action from brands!

(The author is VP, marketing at Scripbox, an online investment service founded in 2012.)