Thoughts 15.03.18

Before getting ‘topical’ brands need to be very, very sure they have something to say

The dust is now settling on the brand dust-ups kicked off on International Women’s Day.

Verity Messett – Content Strategy Director.

McDonald’s “MFeminism” debacle is the highest profile ‘marketing fail’ of IWD ‘18. And yet its inverted arches forming a W have emerged as the day’s iconic image. It’s probably the one we’ll remember. Design-wise it’s very nice. A literal flip of the familiar. Deft, simple and probably seen by more people worldwide than any other brand’s effort. And yet it’s doubtful the team behind it was high-fiving come 5pm on March 8th. The reason being, of course, sentiment. Marketing’s fluffiest metric 99% of the time, perhaps, but it packs the sharpest sting in that 1% of the time when it all goes horribly wrong.


That so many – Brewdog, Johnnie Walker, KFC – joined McDonald’s in falling flat this year feels like a particular failure to read the room. In a post #metoo, post #timesup world, Women’s Day 2018 had become a focal point of strong feeling on the part of women worldwide and, specifically, some of the web’s most mobilised, vocal, and influential communities. It was no longer a fun talking point sandwiched between Global Happiness Day on the 20th and the rose-tinted excesses of Valentine’s the month before. This was not the year for cutesy executions and flimsy gestures. Brands were going to be held to a higher account and scrutinised more intensely by these audiences. The thing is, anyone in close contact with culture could have told them that.


The spectacular territorial pushback by social media on IWD – our space, our issue, our conversation, and not yours – mirrors the discourse around privileging women’s voices in women’s conversations in general since the Weinstein scandal broke in October. The nature and consequence of a paradigm shift is that it calls new attention to the water we swim in, in all kinds of ways. One of the lesser – but that marketers must take note of – is this: Did brands ever have any damn good reason to be talking in the first place?


On reflection, the Class of 17 didn’t ace it either. The Fearless Girl statue, the standout image from Women’s Day last year, has been marred by controversy. First, Arturo Di Modica, the artist who sculpted the original Charging Bull, accused New York City of violating his legal rights. Then artist Alex Gardega installed Pissing Pug, a third bronze, urinating at the feet of the Fearless Girl. At the time, Gardega had the following, stinging words for State Street, Fearless Girl’s commissioners: “(It is) corporate nonsense. It has nothing to do with feminism and it is disrespect to the artist that made the bull … It is advertising/promotion in the guise of art.” Many female artists and cultural critics took Gardega to task for his gesture but the public conversation around Fearless Girl since has tended to focus on the fact State Street has now paid out over $5m over gender pay discrimination. With hindsight, the widely reported and retweeted “nothing to do with feminism” rebuke rings with how-did-we-miss-that pertinence.


Not ten working days before IWD 18, KFC UK had massively won quick reactive marketing in response not to a calendar holiday but to its chicken shortage crisis. At the time, this felt like a jaw-droppingly unlikely turnaround of a dire situation. Mark Ritson highlighted the stacked odds against KFC, calling attention to “all the things that need to be in place to do this”. Foremost not being blocked by the parent company or senior stakeholders. But in the light of McFeminism, taking out “a full-page ad that basically says fuck in your corporate colours” doesn’t look half as foolhardy, or risky, as waltzing into a fraught, complex cultural moment with sunny intentions and a neat logo inversion. Because the chicken crisis was, at least, actually happening to KFC. It was about them. They had not only a right but an obligation to say something for themselves. It is to their immense credit that they did so with such aplomb. But it throws a few of our current operating assumptions into sharp relief that it should feel bolder, braver, and riskier for a brand to step up and say something clear and humble about their own cock-up, than it does to most of us to jump on any number of social movements that we have no stake in and no ongoing commitment to.


Brands, like people, should only join conversations if they can add something. To be relevant, you need to contribute, enhance, or reinterpret the moment, not just piggyback off it. Sure, reactive executions can and should be playful, or irreverent, or edgy if that’s what the job at hand calls for. But a grain of deeper brand truth needs to be present to pearl around if it’s to be believed, accepted, and embraced. It behoves us all as marketers to be certain, first, there’s a job at hand, what it is and that we’re the ones to be doing it.

Photo Credit: The Drum