The Controversy Behind DEI Ads for CPG Brands

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The Controversy Behind DEI Ads for CPG Brands

June 5, 2023

Post-pandemic trends reveal that consumers desire authenticity and real human-to-human connections through shared values especially where Diversity, Equity, and  Inclusion (DEI) is concerned. The need for more or better representation is almost always centered around one question: Do the brands I use care about me or my community?  

In 2007, Procter & Gamble launched their global My Black is Beautiful Campaign to improve the ways that Black women were portrayed and represented in popular culture. In 2021, Old Navy launched the BODEQUALITY campaign to ensure that all body types and sizes were represented in their ads and clothing offerings. However, elsewhere there have been too many mishaps and missed opportunities worth noting, especially in instances where companies felt compelled to speak up or speak out on trending news where DEI matters were concerned. 

This year, Bud Light beer sales have experienced a decline of over 28% due to the backlash and call for a boycott by conservative supporters and celebrities, following the brand’s partnership with a transgender influencer who promoted a can design on social media, with her image on it. In 2017,  Skittles sparked a major outrage with their all-white bag of Skittles in honor of June’s Pride month, with consumers arguing that the absence of color was actually sending out a different message.

Unintentional consequences are the things that brands should be wary of before addressing controversial social issues. Here are 5 more to think about: 

Don’t create or use controversy to promote a product or service.

Your loyal consumers have been with you long before this campaign; meaning they are here because they believe in your product and have organically grown to trust your brand. Stating your position or values about social issues as a way to increase sales is an abuse of that trust. When sales are the motive, your campaign may be translated as insensitive, manipulative, and/or greedy. Instead, try using controversy to strengthen your brand positioning by demonstrating how key values are in place to benefit your customers, products, services, and even employees.

Miller Lite appears to be embarking on a potentially challenging path with an advertisement that celebrates women as brewers and challenges the portrayal of women as mere pinups in beer advertisements. It is foreseeable that this strong advocacy for gender equality might create a divide among male beer consumers who value female attractiveness and may not garner significant support from the broader population accustomed to sexual imagery, both explicit and subtle, in advertising.

Pick the Best Approach but Don’t Pick Sides

Bud Light and Skittles got caught up in an “us versus them” debate. Although with good intentions, both brands essentially dropped the ball by polarizing the issues of gender identity & equality and picking a side through their ads and campaigns at a brand level – something that works best for politics but not so well for marketing. Even without knowing, brands may be alienating one population by showing full support to another. Instead, companies should find ways to speak to a represented minority group through shared values that directly correlate to the ideas of diversity, equity, and inclusion without throwing full support to the underdog.

Following the global outrage from the George Floyd murder, peaceful protests were interrupted by looters who forced Target to close 175 stores. When addressing the public, Target released a comfort letter to their customers.  They acknowledged the pain and brokenness caused by the current events and provided a constructive path forward by emphasizing just how they planned on continuing to serve the communities affected by their store closings. Without pointing a finger or deliberating verdicts, they addressed the problems and used their resources to offer a solution that would help the families and communities that were hurt the most. 

Don’t Promote Values that are not represented in your own Company

The last thing that any brand wants is to be called out by employees for not demonstrating the same philosophies and values they’re advertising. This hypocritical move is a sure way to compromise work culture and lead to possible employee turnover. In the last 5 years, several fashion houses have been outed by employers of color for using DE&I departments as a mere formality with no real efforts in place for a diverse workplace.

In 2021, New York Times published a piece where executives of the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) were asked to respond to the increasing diversity problem in fashion. The organization, which represents 450 fashion and accessory designers, returned with requests for pre-written questions, email-only interviews, and responses that never addressed the hard hitting questions at hand.  Meanwhile, these fashion houses were being called out by influencers, models, and employees citing the many discriminating practices that have become more norm than Monday scrum meetings. 

To avoid this kind of call-out, consider how any social controversy applies to your brand internally. Instead of a public announcement, this may be a call for you to restructure your work culture first. Take the opportunity to do a temperature check and speak to employees and even community leaders on how your brand can better serve them.  

Don’t become the controversy.

In 2017, Pepsi launched a commercial featuring Kendall Jenner in an urban, street-musical-like peace protest, sharing a can of Pepsi as a means of bridging the gap for inequality. Backlash for poor marketing can easily evolve into controversy that can compromise the face of your brand and the spokesperson. In this case, Pepsi came under fire for lack of sensitivity and trying to make light of a serious issue, using a privileged celebrity who did not have proven experience with racial discrimination or police brutality.

Team up to Avoid Blind Spots

When you decide to use your platform as a means to amplify an issue or perspective, it is crucial that parties closely related to it are involved. Don’t assume you know what’s going on. Add diverse voices and perspectives to the table rather than speak for them.  Use your brand to amplify their voices. The GRO Agency collaborated with The Hershey Company in 2022 to launch the Black Music Month campaign. The aim was to amplify the voices of young people through music and music education in and out of school by partnering with Black creatives and organizations.

In conclusion, it is important for brands to recognize that engaging in controversial issues doesn’t necessarily entail jeopardizing their reputation. Instead, it can provide an opportunity to showcase a different facet of their brand—one that genuinely comprehends and resonates with their audience beyond mere product sales. Moreover, if a brand needs to address areas that require improvement, transparency is key. By openly acknowledging shortcomings and expressing a sincere commitment to do better, brands can earn the trust and loyalty of those who rely on them.

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