It all started with that Pepsi advert. In the controversial spot featuring Kendall Jenner, lots of young, multicultural people are staging a street protest, leading to the Instagram-famous star handing a fresh can of sugary pop to a police officer. It tried to invoke the somewhat tense political era we are living through, and that Pepsi was the answer to all of our problems.
It was met with great derision and then canned (pun entirely intended).
I can see why – the whole thing feels a little crass. But it was also a culturally significant moment. Brands could see that, by trying to do something similar, but in a more considered fashion, they could generate a huge amount of publicity, and I’m sure communication teams around the globe were suddenly working up a frenzy of ideas.
Yet, creating marketing campaigns like this can be a huge risk.
During an NFL game in 2016, 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick bent down onto one knee as “The Star-Spangled Banner” played triumphantly. It was in defiance to what he believed was the oppression of black people and people of colour in the USA. Naturally, this led to POTUS and the conservative commentariat kicking up an almighty fuss, accusing Kaepernick of disrespect, which only meant further NFL players felt compelled to ‘drop a knee’. Nike then chose Kaepernick to be their face of a new campaign.
As I holidayed in New York late last year, it felt as if he was following us, as around every turn was a giant billboard with his face and Nike branding. This resulted in angry right-wing protestors taking to social media and posting videos of them burning Nike shoes – not usually a great sign for a brand.
But, now get this. As pointed out by my idol Scott Galloway, this simply aligned Nike’s marketing efforts with a largely progressive younger audience; a group with disposable income and the desire to be fashionable. This is who Pepsi was aiming it. He called it, “the gangster marketing move of 2018.”
Both of these examples are American. What if businesses in the UK were to politicise current challenges? Well, it’s already happened, thanks to HSBC’s current campaign which revolves around the central theme of “We are not an Island”.
No matter which side of the Brexit (oh no, I mentioned the ‘B-word’!) debate, this advert can be seen from both perspectives. I think it cleverly leverages the political and personal turmoil we currently find ourselves in. The campaign focuses on Britain’s international nature and makes the case that for such a small island, we punch well above our weight.
I happen to believe this is a well-judged play, that doesn’t sharpen too many spears or elicit outrage, but instead eats away at your brain in the days following.
I have finally arrived at the elephant in the room: Gillette. Long known for its famous catchphrase of “The best a man can get”, Gillette has tried to reinvent the brand positioning – in the face of ever-popular subscription competitors – by creating a new campaign challenging male gender stereotypes. Sadly, I think it comes across as trying too hard and ends up being a stereotype itself.
The internet has got annoyed. Very annoyed. Whatever you do, don’t go on Reddit. Clickbait contrarian Piers Morgan was angered. As I write this, the YouTube video has 66% downvotes. But, crucially, it also has over 16 million views, is number 11 on YouTube global trending videos and the view count has increased by 6 million since I watched it yesterday. I had a ten-minute conversation this morning about Gillette razors, something I’ve never done.
Despite Gillette being slightly wide of the mark, they got tongues wagging. HSBC is successfully positioning themselves as the smart place to invest. Weaving politics within marketing is a massive risk, but when the messaging is extensively researched, the benefits can be huge.
My message for 2019 is clear: if you want column inches and high brand recall, get into politics. If musicians, comedians and film stars are able to, so can marketers.