Six Lessons from Gillette
With “We Believe,” the razor company actively challenges its customers to change. Here’s what other companies can learn from the new campaign.
By Clara Salter
Over the past year or so, a number of America’s more familiar brands have broken with the longstanding unwritten rule that corporations must steer clear of hot-button issues. Companies such as Levi Strauss and Co., Walmart, and Nike are instead leveraging their profiles to tackle a number of this nation’s most divisive issues.
This week corporate activism hit a new high water mark with “We Believe: The Best Men Can Be.” The 90-second Gillette advertisement is a crash course on human decency. The spot skewers the “boys will be boys” mentality and confronts toxic masculinity, bullying, and sexual harassment.
Executives are likely wondering how to navigate this new corporate-activism landscape. We asked our team what Gillette got right, what it should look at next, and what other companies inspired to follow their lead may wish to keep in mind:
1. Do Your Homework
- Do not under any circumstances alienate the grassroots supporters of the cause you hope to support. On this front, it’s clear Gillette had its finger on the pulse. Both campaign and commitment reflect active conversations within the #MeToo movement and are particularly important on the occasion of the third annual Women’s March.
- Though we don’t yet know what stakeholder engagement work the company conducted (we’ve asked), “We Believe” has all the markers of authentic engagement with employees, customers, advocacy organizations, and academics. The spot captures nuances and presses buttons.
- Critically, Gillette is not simply raising awareness of sexism with “We Believe” — it is actively challenging its customers to change. In this regard, it carves out new territory in corporate activism.
2. Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is
- Gillette is not simply trying to raise awareness and encourage change, it’s putting real money behind its message. The company will donate $1 million per year for the next three years to U.S. non-profit organizations that are working to “inspire, educate and help men of all ages achieve their personal best and become role models for the next generation.”
- Advocacy organizations typically operate on a shoestring. If your company wants to drive change, then invest in front-line groups that have been hammering away at your issue for years.
3. Walk the Talk
- Brands are powerful change agents because they have a large megaphone of influence. Gillette recognizes that its advertising doesn’t just drive sales — it also shapes attitudes: “From today on, we pledge to actively challenge the stereotypes and expectations of what it means to be a man, everywhere you see Gillette. In the ads we run, the images we publish to social media, the words we choose, and so much more.”
- If your company is ready to exert its influence to drive positive change, internalize and embody that change.
4. Come Clean
- Odds are, your company has likely contributed to the problem you are now pledging to change. That should be a lead reason to address it. Gillette’s statement reads in part: “…we have spent the last few months taking a hard look at our past and coming communication and reflecting on the type of men and behaviors we want to celebrate.”
- Gillette significantly boosted its credibility with would-be critics by recognizing that it, also, needs to clean up its act. To date, we’ve not seen much push back from organizations that might ordinarily question the company’s motives.
- That said, Gillette has received some criticism for the new campaign and the gendered and pink-taxed products in Venus, its women’s line. We’ll watch to see what the company does here.
- Before your brand takes a stand, audit your company’s practices, norms, and product lines to understand how it can do better. That signals that you’re taking a stand for the right reasons. If you don’t, your stakeholders will question your integrity and intentions.
5. Be Authentic
- To be sure, a company invoking a social justice movement in its advertising will raise eyebrows. How do consumers know the company isn’t co-opting a movement to sell more products? Take these comments in stride, and don’t leave the conversation because of them. If you want to make change, listen to your skeptics. Having critical conversations encourages companies to ask questions and — to borrow language from Gillette — to be the best they can be.
- In 2017, a Pepsi advertisement attempted to align itself with Black Lives Matter, but flopped spectacularly. Through the spot, Pepsi implied that its product could solve police brutality, and was completely tone-deaf to the movement. (The company quickly pulled the spot in question and apologized.)
- In contrast, “We Believe” does not suggest that Gillette razors can fix toxic masculinity. It feels more like a PSA for an advocacy campaign — one that the company is clearly taking to heart.
- Your intentions are going to be questioned no matter what, so above all else, be authentic. If your company really wants to make a difference, don’t use a movement to sell products, use your platform to influence change.
6. Hold Fast
- Nike weathered a couple of days of shoe-burning theatrics following its Colin Kaepernick campaign (read our take on that here). While Gillette is catching some flak, it’s mostly from “men’s rights” groups — not #MeToo supporters — and it’s nowhere near the backlash that Pepsi received.
Corporate activism is not without its risks. But “We Believe” is the latest data point that this trend is inching towards the mainstream. We expect consumers, employees, NGOs, and investors will increasingly expect companies to use their voice and clout to genuinely help make the world better. Given this, letting your competitors do the talking while your company sits idle could pose a greater risk to your brand and bottom line than speaking up.