A short essay on brand bravery

Defining what makes a certain brand “brave” is difficult. The problem arises from he fact that the line separating “brave” from “stupid” is so horribly blurred. What is definite is that both the brave and the stupid end up taking risks. However, I differentiate these two descriptors by holding that the brave brands, when stepping out on a limb, do it in a way that is calculated, purposeful, and intent on causing positive change through cultural discussion.

One of the more controversial risks a brand can take is to unreservedly include a minority standpoint in its advertising, regardless of the repercussions. This throws the brand into the spotlight—good or bad—as a topic of social and cultural discussion. Those brands that do this purposefully are fully aware that many—let’s be honest, most—may take huge offense to whatever is depicted or represented in the spot. However, they accept this wholeheartedly in exchange for the few members of the audience who will appreciate it—or at the very least, respect it.

The travel company Orbitz comes immediately to mind, and its campaign for “gay travelers.” In not just one, but multiple spots, Orbitz targets and highlights the LGBTQ community directly. It does not simply throw gay references in there for diversity—they are the definite center of the advertisements. Orbitz is unabashedly deliberate, and got the attention they wanted and deserved from the spots. Stephanie Blackwood, managing director of gay advertising agency Double Platinum in New York, said of the spots, “Hats off to Orbitz that it’s not a one-off but instead a whole mini-campaign to the gay and lesbian market. Too often, we’re expected to feel lucky if there’s one.”

This is bravery—purposeful, risky, beautiful bravery. Orbitz willingly takes the controversy head-on, promoting real cultural change and offering itself up as a scapegoat for any who don’t agree.

However, this is where it gets tricky, and where the brave/stupid connection gets murky. Chick-Fil-A, in June of 2012, took a strong stance against same-sex marriage through statements made by its president. It can be argued that Chick-Fil-A is brave for standing so steadfastly behind what the company believes in. I, however, think that Chick-Fil-A president Dan Cathy’s statements were purely brand stupidity. Praying mercy on a “generation that has such a prideful, arrogant attitude” was not a calculated move on the part of the brand. In fact, “word vomit” is probably a closer approximation to what came out of Cathy’s mouth. The idea behind bravery is there; he is standing by a position, regardless of the consequences. Unfortunately, it was executed in an unprofessional, blatantly offensive manner. Had Chick-Fil-A created an ad that supported heterosexual marriage, that could constitute a “brave” move and would unmistakably show the brand’s opinion on the matter. Instead, Cathy came out trash talking and generalizing an entire generation of chicken eaters. Smooth move, Cathy.

Regrettably, Cathy’s statements are not unrepresentative of a basic advertising goal. Advertising, in general, is very conservative; trying not to anger the consumer base is a main objective. The brave will scrape against this grain, placing diversity high above the need to keep the consumers happy in the hopes that the risk will pay off in the long run. In fact, diversity itself is difficult to find in advertising. Most spots still portray happy, middle class white families, because that is what we’re used to seeing. Making this family goofy is now the norm for a brand trying to get our attention. There is a slowly increasing amount of advertisements featuring minorities, but when is it diversity and when is it simply using a “token” minority?

Brave brands need to use diversity in a real, ballsy sense, including minorities because they can—not because they are obliged to. Tokenism is for the fearful brands, hiding behind “we put a black guy in there, so we’re all good with the diversity thing.”

One of the bravest things a brand can do, now that we’ve moved into a full-fledged social media world, is to risk placing trust in your audience to judge and support you. Now that brands are able to interact directly with their target audiences, they have the opportunity to step out on limbs like never before, with significant risk. Fans have the ability to tell brands how much they love them, or can viciously bash them in the very public space of the World Wide Web.

One of the most interactive brands is Taco Bell, operating mainly through its inviting Facebook page. In December, Ryan Klarner—A high school swimmer—reached out to Taco Bell, asking for a custom Speedo adorned with “Think Outside the Buns.” Taco Bell commented on the post with, “What size do you wear? And what’s your address?” Klarner was given two Speedos, one with his requested design and another with “Live Mas”—the new slogan.

This act, though at first glance silly and generous, is placing ultimate trust in a fan. Taco Bell made a high school kid an ambassador for its brand. What if Klarner is caught partying in the Speedo? Anything he does while wearing the banana hammock translates back to Taco Bell itself, possibly implying that they support underage drinking or whatever else a high school boy chooses to do. Taco Bell took this risk, proving that they, as a brand, will put that fan’s happiness ahead of any possible negative consequences.

In this same arena comes the risk of asking your fans, “Are we doing this correctly?” To publicly accept criticism and then address it is extremely brave, for most brands choose to discuss negative criticism in private, behind the closed doors of an online submission box or corporate email. Brands with enough balls to do so can now respond directly to complaints via social media, wide open for the public to see.

I applaud those few brave brands that take the big risks. Hell, I’ll even give a polite golf-clap for the brands that take the stupid risks that backfire in their faces. Brands simply must remember that the risks are only worth it if they are well thought out and have a definite purpose. Companies should push for positive change through their advertising, for ads reach a precious audience. Brands are a major part of our lives, especially those that grab our attention and keep us talking about them later; such an influence has an incredible potential for social and cultural discussion. So please, step outside of the conservative advertising box and shock the world into taking a long, deep look at itself.

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