One of the greatest criticisms levelled at Superman is that he lacks the flawed character of other superheroes in the DC and Marvel universes. Irrespective of the changes that happen to Clark Kent, his stance on what constitutes right and wrong remains unbowed. Whilst admirable, this character “flaw” has definitely had an impact on his popularity over the years. The last three films involving Superman have been panned by critics as audiences turn their attention to films with a darker edge courtesy of Christopher Nolan’s genre-breaking Dark Knight trilogy. Even the jovial Avengers series has dabbled in the consequences of differing world views as a cause for conflict; but not Superman. He, and more importantly the audience, are never in doubt.
This perfect, incorruptible persona is one shared by the majority of brands. Like Superman, brands change the way they look, who they cater to among many other characteristics, but the one thing that never changes is the fact that in this constructed narrative, the brand is always the hero. This position isn’t hardly surprising (after all, who in their right mind would pitch a morally fallible brand?) but it does leave brands with a problem when it comes to creating a distinctive message.
Writing for Creative Review, Nick Ashbury summed up the dilemma that brands find themselves in as a result of this characterisation when talking about brands’ attempts to include themselves in conversations on social issues:
Whenever you see a brand adopting a cause – whether it’s Andrex doing Clean or Dove doing Feminism – it’s always with the zeal of the recent convert. Not only do they now believe in this issue, but they’re also going to be the one who ‘leads the conversation’ and tells you about it. There’s never a sense of humility or genuine engagement because brands always have to cast themselves as the hero.
This isn’t to downplay the importance of the issues that many brands choose to champion, but at a point this particular method of building a brand saturates as everyone scrambles to avoid being left behind.
In his seminal work on branding, Kevin Lane Keller wrote the following on how brands are built:
Building customer-based brand equity requires the creation of a familiar brand that has favourable, strong, and unique brand associations.
The key characteristic in this instance is that the associations need to be unique to have value. Whilst Keller’s model on consumers’ brand knowledge characterises this uniqueness as one of several aspects that formulate the perception of a brand, investing resource into this particular branch of a brand when it doesn’t do what it preaches seems very conceited.
Byron Sharp has taken a markedly different perspective on this element of branding, stating that as long as a brand is making an effort to stand out from its peers, the message is less important. Sharp’s counterpoint to Keller’s theory leaves marketers with a simple choice if they wish to forge positive brand equity by associating the brand with secondary sources: find a cause or position entirely congruent with the brand/company and look to leverage this intrinsic relationship, or pin the colours to the mast of a cause that has largely been ignored.
With these positions identified, there are two fundamental questions that brands need to ask before attempting this type of campaign. The first is whether any other brands are conducting similar strategies. The second is whether the campaign would make sense if another brand was applied to the message. If the answer is yes to both, it is a waste of time and energy.
These questions serve to highlight a number of important points regarding branding; the first recognises the importance of differentiation and the second covers the point made by Keller that the association needs to be unique. Too many brands fall into the trap of playing it safe and rejecting both theories. There are examples of brands for whom positive causes are part of the company’s culture (Ben & Jerry’s, Patagonia and Lush to name a few) but the mistake that is made all too often is that it is a sin not to have a section on your website dedicated to the ethical and societal values of the brand. Thinking through the potential benefits and what will serve as window dressing can help effectively position the content and provide valuable context to its message.
By creating a thorough plan and sticking to one of these theories, brands can hope to forge a reputation that will have a positive effect on brand equity. Too many campaigns see themselves as unprecedented beacons of hope for the future, the moral yardsticks against which we should feel utterly inadequate. Social and ethical activism is no longer an uncommon tactic adopted by brands, and brands shouldn’t feel that they have earned the respect of consumers by donning the cape of any given cause.
What’s your opinion on brand activism? Can it benefit brands who aren’t directly involved in causes? Tweet us @FastWebMedia and share your thoughts.