EMB Hot Take: What We (Marketers) Owe Our Audiences

EMB Hot Take: What We (Marketers) Owe Our Audiences

A couple of days ago, I was scrolling through TikTok at 2 am (don’t judge me too hard) and I came across a video of four news anchors in a heated discussion about a Dior marketing campaign that used Jennifer Lawrence as the face of their Cruise 2019 collection, when the designs took inspiration from Escaramuzas, female Mexican equestrians. In the video, the argument turned into one of cultural appropriation and representation because Dior didn’t make the effort to hire Mexican models to celebrate Mexican culture.

To me, this is a completely valid point: if you’re celebrating a specific culture, why not use the people of that culture to do it? And as I scrolled through the stitches of the video, there were a bevy of responses. Some agreed that someone Mexican should have been the face of the campaign. Other people said that the collaboration was inspiring and it is exciting to have others want to take part in the culture. Some pointed out that there was other representation behind the scenes, as there were Mexican female photographers on this campaign. 

(There was also the mansplaining, but that’s a different discussion for a different day.)

After looking at all of the responses, it got me thinking: do we, as marketers, really understand the impact that we have on our audiences?

As part of our jobs, our goal is to communicate with an audience in a relatable way in order to promote our service or product. But at the end of the day, that’s our goal—to promote the product or service. Do we really think about the lasting effects that a campaign could have?

It’s been a few years since this campaign was in the spotlight, but the fact that the video has resurfaced and is sparking such a discussion is very significant for me. But for other brands that might be pushing a campaign that is inspired by other cultures, considering the lasting impact of that campaign might be something to keep in mind. Looking at society today, it's certainly no secret how important inclusivity is, and we can see it in the unfortunate backlash from campaigns that do try to be inclusive of its entire audience. Target, for example, very recently faced (and is still facing) retaliation from its less inclusive audience over its PRIDE campaign, with many accusing the retail giant of ‘going woke.’ The same happened to Anheuser-Busch after partnering with Dylan Mulvaney, which resulted in conservatives going so far as to boycott the brand. Both brands’ responses have affected their audiences in different ways and will, no doubt, have long-term effects on the brand as well.

But what’s most interesting in these instances is both brands’ responses to the backlash. 

Bud Light’s conservative audience made a real effort to express their disdain for its partnership with Dylan, doing everything from posting some very vocal social media responses on TikTok to throwing away their already-purchased Bud Light in protest—and special shoutout to the man sitting behind me who very loudly voiced his disdain as he proudly proclaimed to his wife, “I’m not drinking Bud Light anymore, you know, because of the ‘gay’ thing.” So, in response to upsetting their core audience, they released what they deemed an appropriate response: "We never intended to be part of a discussion that divides people.” They released this response back in April of this year. As of today, their sales continue to decline. Hmm.

As for Target, who continues to receive some dangerous backlash since introducing the PRIDE 2023 collection in their stores, their initial response to move their PRIDE merchandise to the back of their stores, or remove it altogether, was made to protect their store employees and decrease violence in their establishments. However, it is still pretty troubling to see the pattern of behavior that has emerged as a result of these big brands’ attempts at inclusivity.

Cases like these and others that have to do damage control stick out to me not because of the obvious ways they have messed up, but for the unspoken havoc and lasting impact that they leave behind in all the chaos—empowering one part of their audience to mistreat another. Of course, no brand wants to continually lose money on a product they are supposed to be selling. But their half-hearted responses have only left me wondering if these brands realize the damage that they are doing to certain segments of their audiences and to themselves. Both responses seem like a passive way to say, “Hey, we tried something different but it’s really upsetting other people, so we’ll stop.” It doesn’t at all account for those they are hurting and/or putting in danger with this careless behavior. A colleague of mine mentioned that these companies “value their margins over their audiences who’ve been marginalized.” Phew. 

Again, taking a look at society today, it seems to be really difficult for people to actually stand up for the causes they believe in. And perhaps it's because they don’t have any intention of supporting the causes they are claiming to get behind—it’s just another money grab. Yes, most brands (eventually) want to expand their audience, but doing that means really thinking about what that means. Attracting a new audience means actually believing and standing by the messaging that you’re releasing when trying to relate to new groups of people; it means really doing the work to understand their perspectives. I suspect that these brands were absolutely not ready to do that. They were just looking for a new revenue stream. The problem is that the lasting effects from these failed experiments can be dangerous and harmful in the long run, and that’s too much of a risk not to think about.

At the end of the day, marketing is all about the way we relate to our audience and the relationships we build. But deep in that statement lies something that I think brands forget, and that has to do with the impact we leave. Whether it is positive or negative, the fact is that we’re always leaving a lasting impression on those we communicate with, through both what is and isn’t said, as well as how it is (or isn’t) said. People remember and pay attention to these campaigns more than we realize. It’s up to us, as marketers, to leave our audiences with campaigns and messaging that inspire hope and goodness, things that will last beyond a simple product or service. After all, as we say here at EMB, marketing isn’t transactional, it’s relational. Let’s give them a relationship worth remembering.

Samantha Lawrence, Account Manager
Elevate My Brand

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