How brands try to boost their immunity in this post pandemic world
I can’t breathe. These three little words ushered more change across the globe in months, than the last three decades could. Immortalised by George Floyd, these words encapsulate the lament of pretty much every marginalised person or race on this planet today. Ironically, it also includes a segment that represents half the planet’s population — women. As a result, brands that profit from sexist, ageist and colourist values have been forced to self-reflect. Victoria’s Secret is possibly the most dramatic case in point — for years, the lingerie major had supermodel ‘Angels’ trussed up in gossamer, underwire and fantasy, but last week saw a brand turnaround.
When Floyd’s words echoed around the world, shining the light on prejudice and discrimination in public and workplaces, every brand on the planet was forced to ‘wake up’. Global conversations about Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DIE) sparked a growing social consciousness in the corporate sector. Consumers started aligning themselves to brands that mirrored their values. And Victoria’s Secret was reduced to a pile of singed wings and flaming halos. Dissonance between its brand values and the environment it inhabits today begged a total overhaul.
Actor Priyanka Chopra Jonas | Photo Credit: Getty Images
A year’s introspection has yielded an entirely new executive team as well as an all-new board, most of them women. And of course, the Angels, God bless their tired souls, have been put to rest. Along with the angels, VS hopes to bury the flawed stereotype of the perfect woman it had perpetuated for decades, by partnering with accomplished women from diverse backgrounds, colour, size and sexual orientation. The newly minted Collective includes names like Megan Rapinoe, Priyanka Chopra, Valentina Sampaio, Paloma Elsesser, Eileen Gu and others picked for their accomplishments rather than their proportions.
Raúl Martinez, the new creative director in charge of rebranding, confesses being persuaded by his 15-year-old daughter to join VS. “Dad, do it for us, the Gen Zs!” she’d said. Gay soccer champ Rapinoe was impressed by the willingness of the brand’s management to acknowledge and own their mistakes. Elsesser can’t wait to amp up the body positivity decibel, while Sampaio hopes to use VS to open doors for trans women like herself.
A clean-up exercise
In a post Black Lives Matter (BLM) world, not embracing DEI can cost a business its employees, investors, consumers and public trust. Marketers need to make an intrinsic change in the brand narrative to inspire credibility and be authentic in their initiative. The real change comes from inviting and validating the outliers and driving public conversations.
Soccer star Megan Rapinoe | Photo Credit: Getty Images
Starbucks USA banned their baristas from wearing any BLM merchandise, but when the press reported this, the chain swung the other way and distributed BLM T-shirts to staff. Nike’s popular campaign about gender equality rang hollow when it refused maternity leave to one of its sponsored runners. Instead of hastily making commercials to raise awareness, brands would benefit from cleaning up their houses first and addressing in-house sexist, racist, homophobic and transphobic behaviours. It’s only when the intent permeates into their employment policy, corporate communication and brand values, that it is more than just a band aid for systemic problems, biases and issues. Online dating brands like Bumble, Tinder and OK Cupid have all started diversity conversations, which while seeming organic to the brand, may well be an opportunity to expand user bases.
Of beauty and inclusivity
Meanwhile, in the beauty and skin sector, Nivea and J&J immediately withdrew their whitening products in India, a market where colourism is rampant. The country’s loudest voice in this arena, Fair & Lovely saw a huge pushback on Twitter to follow suit. Its parent Unilever responded by changing the name of its ₹24 billon/year flagship brand to Glow & Lovely and announced that it would cast women of different skin tones in future campaigns.
Titan Fast Track, the pulse of India’s youth has been ahead of the DEI curve in starting conversations about LGBTQI+ inclusivity. Proctor & Gamble initiated a subtly crafted series for Ariel, meant to close the gender gap in homes, by converting male intention into action. Not only did ‘Share The Load’ spark a movement, the pre-pandemic timing of the final communication proved prophetic, urging sons to help with domestic chores, just as daughters did. The Mahindra Group’s recent ‘Rise Up Project’ used music to applaud and encourage the lay person’s effort to rise beyond his situation in the pandemic and reach out to the community with help and solace. It dovetails seamlessly into the corporate’s long standing CSR philosophy “Rise”, which celebrates gender, social equity and inclusivity.
While the pandemic liberated parts of us we didn’t even know were enslaved, it did the same to corporates. By confronting us with our vulnerabilities, it empowered us to rise above them. It pushed us to band together and drive positive change in our lives and that of the not so fortunate around us. For corporates and their brands, Floyd’s three transformational words blossomed into three new ones. Purpose before profit.
Priya Mirchandani is Lowe and Ogilvy alumna, editor and content consultant
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