Weathering the Storm When Your Commitment to Cause Causes Backlash

4 Lessons Learned from Gillette’s Viral “The Best Men Can Be” Video

On January 13th, Gillette premiered its We Believe: The Best Men Can Be short film on YouTube. The two minute piece instantly went viral and ignited a debate among viewers, who quickly fell into several passionate and vocal camps.

Described by some as preachy and pretentious, the video has garnered more than 24 million views on YouTube with 670,000 “thumbs up,” but over a million “thumbs down,” and over a quarter million colorful viewer comments. While the message has its supporters, there’s been an immediate and loud backlash from a vocal group of consumers, further emboldened by other inflammatory posts and the headlines their opinions received in the news media.

Perhaps even more remarkably the spot continues to spark commentary and debate, now more than a week after its launch.

Whether you embrace the campaign’s message to millennial males, that they place their alleged “toxic masculinity” in check and instead serve as role models to millennial men, or find the messaging overly didactic and condescending, the more relevant question for us marketers is, has the Gillette done its brand any damage by coming out with this polarizing campaign?

Here’s one way to look at it. Shaken awake from its lazy slumber by savvy newcomers like Dollar Shave Club and Harry’s, the iconic brand actually did what it needed to do. It fought back and became part of the conversation. That’s a good thing, because if Gillette had continued to remain silent with their brand marketing, the upstart shave clubs would have continued to whittle away at Gillette’s dominance in the industry.

One could argue that campaign has actually worked quite well. Despite the online uproar, deeper social listening has shown the spot doesn’t seem to have hurt Gillette’s business any, and in some cases, may have even earned them some new-found respect. And it’s definitely got people talking about the brand.

No matter how you feel about Gillette’s spot, the campaign serves as a critical marketing case study that we can all learn from.

Here are some early lessons that have emerged from it:

  • Have a communications plan in place for potential campaign backlash.

Public opinion and adverse reactions will always vary in intensity and reach, especially if the campaign explores controversial themes. Having a plan in place to acknowledge and mollify that backlash is key. While Gillette released other elements as part of this campaign, that might have explained their messaging less controversially, these were largely overlooked or ignored by consumers and the media. The company was missing a strategic communications plan to counter some of the damaging hits it’s taken in the public arena.

  • Prevent the Conversation from Veering Off-Track

The conversation about Gillette’s “The Best Men Can Be” rapidly moved from the ad’s content itself and into larger discussions about the appropriateness of brands commenting on current social trends in the first place. Gillette could have curtailed this by developed supplemental message tracks to keep the focus on the brand, not greater societal trends.

  • Go All In and Actively Defend Your Stance.

Though not widely reported, Gillette’s new ad is just a small part of a larger campaign that reinforces the brand’s commitment to long-held values like respect, accountability and role modeling, as well as cause-related activities (more about that here). Net-net: it’s okay to be bold; just stand your ground when the going gets tough.

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