Last week, P & G-owned razor brand Gillette released an ad that updated their longtime positioning and tagline, “the best a man can get.” The spot brings that tagline to life by first highlighting negative male behaviors in the world today, and then pivoting to encourage positive change among men. As people often do these days, viewers had loud feelings about it, joining a nationwide debate over “toxic masculinity.”
A spot like this was probably meant to provoke debate. Thirty years after Gillette’s initial tagline debuted in the 1989 Super Bowl, the business of shaving has changed, and so has advertising.
Today, we see many brands working to ladder up to “purpose." And there is something to that. A business should have a purpose, a truth reflecting core values or a belief system that resonates with both the organization and its target audiences. Authentically defined, purpose can act as a true north for a corporation and guide its response to events in the world in ways that differentiate a brand from its competitors.
But there’s a catch: The creative execution must be flawless.
Gillette’s spot serves up a nice notion. It’s pretty tough to argue against wanting a segment of people to be the best they can be. Yet remarkably, some people were repelled by that invitation. That’s because the execution was flawed.
Nearly two minutes in length, the setup of the cultural tension is too negative, for too long, with too many constructed “teachable moments” up-front that come off hokey.
What does work in the spot are the real people and real moments. Terry Crews testifying that “men need to hold other men accountable” is a great sound bite, and genuine. The footage of the father with his toddler daughter in front of a bathroom mirror, teaching her to say “I am strong” — a viral clip many may recognize because it captured hearts and conversations months ago — that’s the story Gillette should have told.
Rather than drag out the negative for so long, which the world is fatigued by, the spot would have been better served celebrating those “better behaviors” happening in the world. More real people. More real moments.
Saying that we need more of men being great in this world isn’t just “woke” advertising, it’s a conscionable belief system. At Digitas Health, “helping, not selling” is a part of our belief system. Values are something a brand and its audience can feel good about standing up for together. Constructing that story well, to celebrate those doing “the best,” is critical.
But there’s one more key component to this approach — you have to walk it like you talk it. The brand can’t just market an idea; the brand has to make it real, too. In Gillette’s instance, they launched a companion site that seems to be doing exactly that. They are pledging to “actively challenge the stereotypes and expectations of what it means to be a man everywhere you see Gillette.” They’re also committing to spend $1 million per year for the next three years with nonprofit organizations helping men be their best. Building on that by showing how people who work for the brand are personally and professionally advancing this belief system would make this campaign even more meaningful.
Taking big positions in marketing isn’t for every brand or corporation, but it is something leaders do. Doing it well takes bravery and finesse, and brands should consider if they have a legitimate place in the conversation, as well as tolerance for how it may be received. They must consider how their position can have positive impact. Much of the latter can happen through great storytelling or innovation. And, they need to make it true by living it as well.
If you’re wondering if a provocative approach received with mixed reviews like Gillette’s can benefit a brand, the answer is yes. One survey released Thursday found that 61 percent of adults had a positive opinion of the ad.
Gillette has sparked nationwide dialogue with this aspirational statement. Now comes the hard work for Gillette, in continuing to support branding’s influence on culture by elevating it.
Annie Heckenberger is vice president and group creative director at Digitas Health, the first global connected-health agency, with offices in Philadelphia, New York, San Francisco, and London.