Brand Karma Transference

Marketing Case: Unilever portfolio management. Post Summary: A real brand is a promise. An Idea is the most powerful dramatization of the truth your promise holds. It will move your team, channels, communications, operations and consumer. Your consumer will love you for making this promise. And they will hold you relentlessly accountable to live up to your promise in this consumer-in-control age. This transforms the brand role from promise to praxis: truthful execution in all expressions of the brand, including master brands or even portfolios.Back in May I offered a flattering post about Unilever’s corporate adoption of an Idea. The intended initial-captial device in “Idea” is to differentiate it from a campaign, or concept or even meme. An Idea is the clearest, most elemental distillation and dramatization of a brand, theme or company from which anyone can feel the powerful truth about it. Ideas span media and tactics. In my post, I pointed out how it can change companies. In this case, the company mandated healthy BMI minimums for models used across the entire Unilever portfolio advertising. There are volumes of b-books filled with stories of companies and markets moved by the power of an Idea. It will focus and mobilize sales forces, business channels, marketing, logistics, operations and consumers. The key here is “and Consumers.”

“If you’re going to ask me to commit to an idea, you have to live it too,” the consumer tells us in so many ways.In the “consumer-in-control” age more so than ever, an Idea–and by extension the brand–is also a promise. The promise is now a praxis. And the Idea that moves a company will also mobilize the consumer. In the MySpace “Momentum Effect” study on social networks published in April 2007, one of the panel respondents declared, “I don’t want companies to advertise to me. I want them to be my friend.” We consistently see beloved brands enter the “friend” status and circle, and this is becoming more evident in Social Networks where consumers associate themselves closely with brands. Perhaps this informs the disappointment that comes with a broken brand promise and the emotional color in the backlash.Unilever is at the center of a media and consumer backlash frenzy. At issue is how the company responsible for raising the flag and esteem of women from “four to Forever” is also promoting adolescent male fantasies (of which most men “fourteen to forever” partake) via their Axe marketing. We’re talking about a company/portfolio being held accountable for the promise made by one brand. The logic goes, “it’s inconsistent that the same shareholders and board profit from a powerful promise when they play loose with the rules on another brand that flies in the face of the promise of the former.”

For Unilever, this issue isn’t going away soon. Blogs and mainstream media are keeping the issue alive and on the front burner.

My social criticism/editorial take: are we still living in the age of Victoria? Based on this reaction, we’re still firmly under the cold, dead Queen’s influence. You can claim that the Axe ads actually promote female empowerment by objectifying males (they don’t mind), but it’s the sexual charge that still raises concerns. The objection I believe most parents will have is about exposing young children to this experience-forward messaging. That’s a concern captured most powerfully in this consumer generated backlash/parody mash-up video that combines Unilever’s Dove and Axe advertising creative:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SwDEF-w4rJk

In that child’s long, unblinking stare is the comprehension of every fear and evil from which we naturally want to protect them. As a father, I advocate for free speech and take full responsibility for my child’s media consumption. I assure you, my daughter will not be standing in the middle of the street watching full-screen TV spots, websites or other material which we deem unacceptable.So what’s the bigger deal? It’s that people want to believe their brands and promises. The power of the Idea works only if there is true commitment and transparency to it. Brand Karma is a reality, and she gives as much as takes. Unilever may have some tough decisions and a lot of communications ahead, but they are not the only company in this fix. We’re all there. Welcome to the messy part of 2.0. It feels complicated because there’s new rules involved. But we believe there are some simple rules: Be True. Be Great. Be Real.

Note: Real Branding works with Unilever and the Pepsi Lipton Partnership

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One response to “Brand Karma Transference

  1. I posted “Bow-chicka-bow-wow Bites Dove,” and I agree that it is an interesting case study in brand portfolio management. One sibling says one thing while the other says something else, and it is the parent (Unilever) who is being held accountable. It will be interesting to see how Unilever’s PR addresses this. One of their representatives poigniantly said that this controversy “has been a part of the conversation,” which is certainly in line with what web 2.0 is all about – the beauty of all this.

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