ARGUING THAT men should refrain from bullying and sexual harassment does not seem terribly controversial. But a new advert from Gillette, a razor firm, recently achieved its 15 minutes of viral fame by taking a stand against “toxic masculinity”.
Of course, encouraging a few conservative commentators to blow their top was probably part of Gillette’s strategy. Its gamble was that the free publicity from the controversy would more than offset any lost sales to men who wanted a razor rather than a lecture.
A similar bet worked for Nike last year when it unveiled an ad featuring Colin Kaepernick, a quarterback who lost his job after kneeling during America’s national anthem as a way to protest against police racism. A few conservatives burned their Nike shoes in protest. But the company’s share price quickly rebounded and Nike’s sales rose as millennials showed they were more than happy to buy footwear that attracted the opprobrium of President Donald Trump.
Nike’s customers may be more accustomed to politically tinged marketing than those of Gillette. The sneaker firm has tried hard to enhance its image after being caught out by criticism of its labour standards at suppliers in Asia in the 1990s and early 2000s. Taken together, the campaigns are part of a phenomenon dubbed “woke capitalism”, in which companies try to associate themselves with liberal social values. It may well be that executives genuinely do agree with such sentiments. But it is also about positioning brands with millennial consumers (those who reached adulthood after 2000) who often have more freewheeling views than their elders.
“A younger generation of consumers is seeking products that are aligned with their causes,” says Renee Richardson Gosline of the MIT Sloan school of management. Patti Williams of the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania agrees that consumers expect brands to share their values, and not only represent the best value and utility.
By the same token, companies also want to recruit workers from the same generation, which also means appealing to their values. “Young people don’t want to work for a company if it is seen as harmful to the environment or society,” says Jaideep Prabhu of Cambridge University’s Judge Business School. They want to be proud to say where they work.
Big firms have in the past shown social awareness. In 1969, at a time of high racial tensions, Coca-Cola ran an ad called “Boys on a Bench”, which showed black and white youngsters sitting together, enjoying the fizzy drink. What gave the ad extra bite was that segregation had only just ended in the southern states; previously the kids could not have gathered together. Coke followed this with its famous “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing” ad portraying multiracial harmony.
Those adverts were rather more subtle than the modern examples. But firms are once again being pushed into the political forum because America’s “culture wars” cover many issues that affect the workplace. Larry Fink of BlackRock, a giant asset manager, wrote in his latest annual letter to chief executives that “society is increasingly looking to companies, both public and private, to address pressing social and economic issues. These issues range from protecting the environment to retirement to gender and racial inequality.”
It is also worth remembering that firms have long been part of the political process through carefully co-ordinated, expensive lobbying campaigns. Last year, for example, eight firms including Alphabet (Google’s parent) and Amazon each spent over $10m lobbying America’s Congress, according to Opensecrets.org, a website. If firms can push a conservative, low-tax-and-regulation message, why not a socially progressive one?
Lower taxes and less red tape usually mean higher profits, of course. Shareholders will need to be convinced that woke capitalism can do the same. Clearly, brands can benefit over time. A survey by Morning Consult of 2,201 consumers found that the proportion who felt the Gillette brand shared their values rose from 42% to 71% after seeing the firm’s ad. And, as Ms Gosline notes, Gillette is facing a lot of low-cost competition. Positioning the brand as “more than just a blade” may be a wise business move, she says. Harry’s, a rival, had already come out with a report on modern masculinity late last year. Selling razors is a cut-throat business.
This post was originally posted at https://www.economist.com/business/2019/01/26/companies-can-appeal-to-workers-and-consumers-with-liberal-messages.