Naresh Gupta
Guest Article

Causevertising: Are brands getting it wrong?

Our guest author shares his views on three brands that attempted 'woke advertising' recently - Dove, Stayfree and Smart Bazaar.

This seems to be the season of brands wanting to ride a cause and create a narrative around it. I say ‘ride’ with all humility, because what they have done seems hurried and has raised more questions than expected.

I agree, owning a cause is not easy for any brand. While consumers do prefer a brand that has ethics built into its DNA and regularly works for the upliftment of the downtrodden, the brands have not found it easy to make it happen. Purpose is the new buzzword and many brands want to build a purpose (into the brand). Yet, a purpose that has shades of societal responsibility and what consumers believe is true, is hard to build and sustain.

There is only one Patagonia, where charity is at the heart of corporation. Closer home, we do have Tata and Wipro, which do have the ability to deliver brand purpose in a meaningful way. That’s where it stops.

Recently, we have seen three brands trying to do what is called 'woke advertising' in popular parlance. Dove, Stayfree and Smart Bazaar.

Dove has owned the body positivity appeal now for a decade or so. This new campaign around the so-called beauty test will be tough for Dove. There are too many issues, beyond the creative that have been raised.

I see three issues with the whole campaign.

One is around the set up of the campaign. The issue of young girls undergoing a beauty test, has been uncovered using a consumer research. This is the fine print in the ads Dove has released.

To start with Unilever should have released the report to public. The impact of that report would have been far greater than any advertising campaign. By leaving the consumer research as a fine print in a large campaign, it blew up the opportunity that would have added a large dose of authenticity to the brand.

Two, the whole creative device of marksheet and evaluation of young children, is more cringe-worthy than thought-provoking. The brand could have taken the route of establishing how each one of those kids featured in the campaign are talented, gifted, normal, loving daughters, but it opted for hyperbole. The campaign, instead, of becoming a big driver of change, has become a subject of debate that the brand is losing out on.

Three, the corporate brand of Unilever has come under scrutiny that takes away from the cause Dove wants to own. I am sure this is something that everyone across the brand team knows, and I suspect they are hoping that the wider audience doesn’t make the connection. I am not really sure that the average Dove user isn’t aware of Unilever, Axe, and Glow & Lovely.

On my LinkedIn feed, there is anger around the holier-than-thou approach of Dove advertising. Clearly, something that the brand will not be enjoying.

The case of Stayfree is one of bad advertising. There are brands of sanitary napkins that are speaking about period tracker. They are showing red colour to depict period blood. Apple Watch is even talking of ovulation cycle. Stayfree is still stuck on ‘period talk is uncomfortable’.

The sanitary napkin category has moved far beyond what the advertising is depicting. I guess Muruganantham Arunachalam will be scratching his head in amazement. After a movie like Padman, we are still at a scenario where the brand feels that fathers, brothers, teachers and fellow boy students find it difficult to ‘talk’ about periods? The brand needs a wake-up call, a change of research approach, a new look at insights and a new communication approach. It is time they stopped being in 1970.

Smart Bazaar is a non-preachy take, and there is some freshness in what it has created. There may not be big lessons in creativity, but there is a certain charm that seems to work.

There are lessons that we can learn from these three, lessons that we all know, but often forget.

One, be brave. If there is a cause you need to take on and marry it with brand, then don’t be meek or safe. Meek never won any battle. Taking a cause to consumers is like fighting a battle.

Two, be progressive. If there is a cause the brand wants to take on, then the narrative has to be about intended impact and not about today. In the same Stayfree ad, imagine if the school teacher had applauded the boy, instead of admonishing him? The whole campaign would have changed.

Three, go wide. A 30-second ad, a half-page newspaper insert, a small banner, a social media post, will just not work. Make the cause the centre of existence, and then establish honesty and integrity.

We can't have brands as gurus, it simply won't work in 2022.

(Naresh Gupta is co-founder and managing partner, Bang In The Middle)

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