It’s interesting that you select the Axe and Dove teams at Unilever as good programs. They’ve been innovative, for sure, but the fact that they’ve operated so independently has created a brand/corporate reputation issue for Unilever.
When Dove launched its campaign against beauty ads, critics pointed out that this message was absolutely incompatible with Axe’s misogynistic ads. To quote from an op-ed: "A Company’s Ugly Contradiction" in The Boston Globe:
"Viewers are struggling to make sense of how Dove can promise to educate girls on a wider definition of beauty while other Unilever ads exhort boys to make ‘nice girls naughty.’ … Unilever is in the business of selling products, not values, and that means we, the consumers, are being manipulated, no matter how socially responsible an ad seems."
I think this is a cautionary tale suggesting that renegade activity should have limits and that some corporate oversight is essential.
I am grateful for Martin’s comment and I love the imagination and intelligence in evidence on his blog. But this sort of thing makes me deeply uncomfortable. From an anthropological point of view, I believe that brands are obliged to be responsive. This is what makes them vital and interesting from a cultural point of view, and, we hope, from a competitive one. Brands and corporations should be multiple.
There are two points to make here.
First, I think, it’s not for us to say what Unilever can and can say when it makes an ad for Axe. To be sure, there is nothing quite so obnoxious and in the wrong circumstances dangerous as a teen age boy. But it is the job of the marketer to find out what animates the consumer, the meanings at work in his life, to discover his "mattering map." And Axe campaign does this very well. We don’t like it. Too bad. We are not the arbiters of teen boys or American corporations.
Second, we cannot demand consistency from Unilever in its marketing and branding efforts. It is going to speak in several languages. It is after all operating in an increasingly diverse society and several markets. Consistency would blunt its marketing efforts. More to our point, consistency would blunt its responsiveness.
Here’s what I think. We can’t refuse Unilever the right to make an Axe campaign without giving someone the right to refuse Unilever the right to make the Dove campaign. If we can say "no" to a sexist campaign, someone can say "no" to a feminist one.
Nothing should be foreign to brand. As I was trying to argue a couple of days ago in the Kleenex post, we are seeing brands get more adventuresome in the meanings they are prepared to cultivate and embrace. This means that brands are becoming more like other cultural producers, movie makers, poets, writers. There are some standards here, and perhaps stricter ones that those that constrain the movie maker or the poet, but we are nowhere near these standards in the case of the Axe ad. To use the language of the Elizabethan court, the Axe ad may be treated as a "thing indifferent."
This is precisely what is wrong with the authenticity argument now being promoted by Gilmore and Pine. In fact, brands have no native voice. They may have a brand heritage. Some brand meanings may come more easily than others. But there is nothing a brand must say, and nothing, within limits, it mustn’t say. Brands are designed to be exemplars of responsiveness. This means we may not insist on what they "really" mean, or what they "must" say. The very point of the exercise, as this is carried forward by branding, marketing, capitalism, and a dynamic society, hangs in the balance.
For some reason, we feel free to let fly when talking to a brand. We say things we would never dream of saying to a movie maker or a novelist. (And this is interesting.) But I thought the thing we liked about capitalism is that it is responsive. In some sense it does not care what received convention says. It is quite prepared to trumpet new body types if there is an audience for this argument. It is this aspect of capitalism that so serves the cause of liberty. It is this aspect of capitalism that has helped it produce the plenitude, the blooming diversity of our contemporary world. The brand must be multiple because increasingly that’s what the world is.
See Martin’s blog "Brand Mix" here.
Gilmore, James and Joseph Pine. 2007. Authenticity: what consumers really want. Boston: Harvard Business School Press. At Amazon.com here.
Postrel, Virginia. 1999. The Future and its Enemies: the growing conflict over creativity, enterprise and progress. New York: The Free Press. At Amazon.com here.
Got the image shooting my iPhone outside the window of Amtrak on the way to Cambridge. I call it "brand migrating." No, not really.