Everyone is different, but those differences seem more marked today than ever. This can present businesses with tough challenges as they strive to market themselves to as many stakeholders as possible while standing out from the crowd.
Remember that infamous Pepsi advertisement in 2017? A young, diverse crowd wave signs and protest in the street. Police officers line up in front of them. For a moment, the atmosphere seems frightening and tense. But Kendall Jenner, a model and high-profile member of the celebrity Kardashian family, saves the day. Smiling, she hands a can of Pepsi to one of the officers. He takes a sip and smiles back. The crowd cheer and a party atmosphere breaks out around them.
Trying to appeal to everyone, Pepsi succeeded in pleasing almost no one and the advertisement had to be pulled after a fierce backlash, online mockery and heavy criticism. Some said it made light of social justice campaigns, such as the #BlackLivesMatter movement. Others felt the message was simply inauthentic for Pepsi. “We were trying to project a global message of unity, peace and understanding,”a company spokesperson said. “Clearly, we missed the mark, and we apologise.”
I’ve never known it this divided and I’ve been working in trends for 15 years
Pepsi’s mistake was costly, but it is, perhaps, testament to the way we live now – in an increasingly polarised world, where people seem to have hard and fast views on everything from politics to pop stars.
“There is no doubt that polarisation has reached new levels,” says Michael Lee, chief strategy officer at creative agency VCCP. William Higham, one of the world’s leading behavioural futurists and thought leaders, agrees. “I’ve never known it this divided, and I’ve been working in trends for 15 years,” he says.
The reasons for this new mood are many and varied. Certainly, consumers have become more conscious of what they are buying, where goods come from and how they are made.
“Conscientious consumerism is a reality, in particular among the younger generation,” says Lisa Hooker, a partner at PwC and its industry leader for consumer markets. “Showing your ethical economic or sustainability credentials is becoming more important, especially among millennials and Generation Z.”
Consumers are also more likely to speak up if they feel companies have pursued the wrong path, and social media has given them a bigger platform from which to do so. “Consumers will really punish you if you don’t get it right,” says Jacqueline Windsor, a fellow PwC partner in the retail, consumer and leisure team.
Make no mistake
This can seem daunting to companies as they strive to appeal to a wide audience without making serious strategic errors. In response, Lee believes businesses should avoid adopting a strong value-led or political stance just to be different. Instead, they should concentrate on delivering an overall high-quality product.
“People still judge companies, brands and their products on traditional factors, such as quality, price, reputation, brand aesthetic and availability,” he says.
A polarising political campaign does not always translate into sales, either. Supermarket chain Iceland, for example, took an anti-palm oil stance in the run-up to Christmas. Its advert – an animation set in a girl’s bedroom – showed the destruction of a rainforest habitat for the sake of palm oil production. It was banned by Clearcast, the body that works on behalf of broadcasters to vet adverts before they are aired to the public, for being too political. Nonetheless, Iceland was praised in the media and on social media channels, where the advert went viral and was viewed millions of times.
People still judge companies, brands and their products on traditional factors, like quality, price, reputation, brand aesthetic and availability
“Everyone thought Iceland had won Christmas,” Lee says. But, according to research group Kantar, its sales rose by only 1.8 per cent in the 12 weeks to 30 December, way behind Lidl’s at 9.4 per cent and Aldi’s at 10.4 per cent. “Lidl and Aldi delivered the basics really well – they delivered food at affordable prices better than anyone else,” Lee adds.
Iceland’s campaign may not have translated into an immediate sales uplift – but it is certainly not alone in choosing controversy to boost awareness. Without due care, the consequences of such an approach can be highly damaging. Done well, however, taking a stand can reap considerable benefits, particularly today.
An ingrained stance
“People increasingly feel a strong affiliation with companies whose political affiliations or values seem to reflect their own, so it’s naive to say we can just be apolitical and not have to worry about it, because politics is increasingly showing up on the doorstep of the CEO,” says Neil Malhotra, professor of political economy at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. “In a similar way to how you might not want to date someone who doesn’t share your values, you might prefer to buy goods from a company that you feel does share them,” he adds.
Companies also need to stand out among their peers. “Polarisation goes hand in hand with greater awareness. The more people know your brand, the more they know you exist – so taking a stance can be a good way for young companies to get their name out there,” says Sascha Raithel, professor of marketing at Friei Universitat Berlin.
Crucially, however, public campaigns have to match a company’s values and aesthetic.
“If you take any sort of stance, it has to be for the long term, and not just a gimmick or public relations stunt. Your stance has to be ingrained across the whole of your company, from your leadership to your product to your marketing,” says Jane Ostler, global head of media at Kantar.
Nike’s recent advertising campaign is a case in point, featuring the voice of Colin Kaepernick, the American football player and controversial activist against racial injustice. Sales surged after the campaign was launched, even though the use of Kaepernick was fiercely criticised in some quarters. “The advert worked because it felt authentic to Nike’s values. The company has always championed the rebel,” Lee says.
A campaign can’t be a one-way broadcast any more; it has to be considered a conversation
Companies may also benefit from pursuing marketing topics that appeal to everyone, such as Coca-Cola’s “choose happiness” campaign. With selfie-stick giveaways and adverts centred on happiness, it had broad appeal, because, of course, everybody wants to be happy. A month after the campaign launched, the index rating for the Coca-Cola brand, taking into account impression, quality, value, satisfaction, recommendations and reputation, rose by 8.2 percentage points to 26.7, according to YouGov’s BrandIndex.
This approach has to be handled with care, however. “Trying to be a Jack of all trades doesn’t always work, because a product or company can lose its uniqueness and identity,” says James Thurlow-Craig, managing director of website designer Create Designs.
Striking the right tone
Some companies pursue a very different path, aiming to bridge divides through humour. Bakery chain Greggs, for example, accompanied the recent launch of a vegan sausage roll with an advertising campaign that parodied the release of a new iPhone.
The launch could have backfired. Growing numbers of both vegans and meat-eaters feel their diet is about more than just food: it also reflects their identity and values. Greggs’ campaign, therefore, could have alienated traditional customers, even as the group tried to attract new ones. But people responded to the humour and the witty social media repartee that went with it. For one day in January, #greggsvegansausageroll was the top-trending hashtag in the UK.
“It was done with the right tone of voice. But that’s very hard to do,” says Higham. The campaign was not just a success in marketing spheres. Even more importantly for Greggs, the vegan sausage roll also flew off the shelves, helping to lift sales across the group. Two-way conversations can also help businesses to appeal to a variety of consumers, even if they all have different views.
“A campaign can’t be a one-way broadcast any more; it has to be considered a conversation. People have more of a voice now and want to be able to communicate with companies they buy from. The rise of digital and social media has transformed the landscape forever,” says Ostler.
The campaign was not just a success in marketing spheres. Even more importantly for Greggs, the vegan sausage role also flew off the shelves, helping to lift sales across the group
Staffing decisions can make a difference, too, particularly with regard to diversity, from the boardroom to the shop floor. This has multiple benefits, broadening the range of opinions within a business and giving the right impression to external stakeholders.
“It’s about making sure your business, your creative teams and the agencies you work with represent the society you live in and the stakeholders you want to appeal to,” says Ostler. “Diversity is a really big theme at the moment. It is about including rather than alienating people.”
Consumers, employees and suppliers live increasingly different lives and often appear to have divergent views. Technology and social media make these differences increasingly public, allowing consumers, suppliers and employees to be more vocal with their opinions. Navigating this landscape can be tough. But authenticity, stakeholder engagement and even humour can help.
Above all, businesses need to think n