THE MARKETPLACE ABHORS A VACUUM – podcast transcript

Jessica Kingman
Hello, everyone, and welcome to The Richards Group Digital Trends podcast. I’m your host and Digital Strategy Group head, Jessica Kingman. And in every episode I’ll be diving into one of our 10 Digital Trends for 2020. Today I’m talking with brand planning group heads Kelly Piland and Sarah Walker-Hall about their trend, The Marketplace Abhors a Vacuum. Hi, Kelly. Hi, Sarah.

Kelly Piland
Hi.

Sarah Walker-Hall
Hello.

Jessica Kingman
So your digital trend is neither really digital nor is it a trend. It’s actually much more like a thesis about why we are where we are as a society. So I wanted to dig into what your thesis is and why you think it’ll be so important in the coming year.

Kelly Piland
Oh, interesting, why is it so important? You know, it’s kind of funny how we ended up doing this topic, how we ended up here. I have a father who shares all of his opinions, as all good fathers do, of course, who’s wonderful. And he’s always said to me growing up ”that one needs to always be able to trust their principal, their president, and their pastor.” And it stuck with me. It’s one of those things that your parents say, you know, that all of a sudden you look up and you go, “Oh, I remember that,” you know. And so as we were thinking about, as I was thinking about trends, I thought, you know, the more – what I’m noticing is more and more, I’m seeing my clients come to me and say we want to stand for something more than just the product we sell, we want to be about purpose, and we want to take on some issues that are important to our target. And I saw that there was a kind of an interesting relationship there. Talked to Sarah and said, what do you think?

Sarah Walker-Hall
I thought you definitely had something there. And I thought you had a great theory about how we ended up where we did. Because I think we now see brands stand up in even the most provocative cases and take a stand. And we now at this point, we don’t look at that askew. And we say, “That’s just how things are.” But I thought you had a great point as to how we got here, as opposed to just accepting that we’re here now – you’re able to think to track back and say, “This is what happened and it’s actually not in a vacuum,” which is a word we used actually. But because of a decline in leadership from a number of different other places, the brands have actually stepped in. I don’t know if any of these brands are conscious of this. But yeah, I don’t think it’s just happened.

Kelly Piland
Yeah, I don’t either. But I think as planners, a lot of times what helps us is to be able to look back, right? To be able to look back and understand why, so that we can more effectively, more efficiently plan for the future.

Sarah Walker-Hall
Yeah, and I’m a history major. So, like, that’s – my whole life has been predicated on – you can look back and find the patterns. And then that allows you to project forward, but I don’t know if anyone – I mean when the Kaepernick, when Nike came out with the Kaepernick stuff, I got literal goosebumps, hairs stood on end. And I was like, I want to do something like that. And I don’t know if anyone at Nike has been like, “You know, there’s been a decline in leadership.” So maybe it’s time for us to step up as Nike, and wield the force that we have.

Kelly Piland
Right.

Sarah Walker-Hall
I think one of the interesting words that we used early on was causality. And as planners, we’re always trying to suss things out and see, is it causal or correlational or some unholy combination of both, right, which is usually the answer. But the whole notion of kind of identifying the causality, how we ended up in this place, that if you can just put yourself back 10 or 15 years, where brands, mainstream brands are standing up and taking provocative stands on issues, that by definition will alienate them from a somewhat substantively large group of people, would have been anathema to us 10 or 15 years ago – that brands are willing to actually push people away, to stand up for something that people believe in, that some people believe in. But what’s interesting, of course, is this is driven all by consumer expectation at this juncture.

Jessica Kingman
Do you think it’s at all driven by a belief that they feel like they will, I’m just going to pick on Nike, they’re going to sell more sneakers, to the people who find the Kaepernick message compelling, by only focusing on them. Do you think it’s, do you think it has a capitalism backing to it, like a motivation to it?

Sarah Walker-Hall
It’s funny because I think part of the reason I liked Nike so much and it gave me, like I mentioned before, goosebumps was that, for whatever reason, for Nike it always feels organic and true and not driven by sales. Whereas, I’ll pick on Gillette a little bit, when they came out and took a stand on toxic, sorry, masculinity, it did feel very capitalized to me – it also seems like a brand in decline, they’ve lost their relevance, like I could “reverse out this strategy.”

Jessica Kingman
Right.

Sarah Walker-Hall
Of why they would come to – they’re increasingly irrelevant in a category where Harry’s and Dollar Shave Club have come in and absorbed all the heat. So for me, that felt very deliberate. Whereas with Nike, it seemed true to – they have a long history of doing that.

Jessica Kingman
So deliberate and maybe desperate?

Both
Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Jessica Kingman
And Gillette was kind of like a piggybacking off of Harry’s, which really was kind of the leader and talking about toxic masculinity and reshaping the way that we think about masculinity. So when Gillette came out, the ad, it just, it kind of felt like their #MeToo strategy.

Sarah Walker-Hall
Exactly. And it didn’t feel – Gillette has absolutely no authentic history of doing that. So it felt very much like a marketing varnish, not like a true purpose-driven decision.

Kelly Piland
You know what? I have to say, though, that I think if it leads to social change, like if it really has that power, as we propose it does, check out paragraph one. As we propose it does, then I don’t know that I care.

Sarah Walker-Hall
Yeah.

Jessica Kingman
Yeah.

Kelly Piland
You know, I mean, one of the things we talked about, as I mentioned, is this notion of “femvertising,” right? Femvertising is this idea of advertising to promote female empowerment. And what we see, if you look at when femvertising really started to become a thing, it predated by a couple of years, maybe three I think we said in the piece. Yeah, three and a half years. The #MeToo movement. Yeah. And I mean it’s a hypothesis that there’s a real, there’s certainly a correlation, I don’t know if there’s causation, again, to your point. But I’d say that even if it’s in an interest of increased revenue, if it does lead to meaningful social change and changing people’s lives, then I’m in.

Sarah Walker-Hall
You know, I worked on Summer’s Eve here at The Richards Group, and that actually felt like a seminal and, sorry, unfortunately, pun intended there, like a seminal moment. So maybe projecting from the inside out, that felt like a bit, we took a big stand with our “Hail to the V” campaign – was actually all predicated on immediate insight, which was that you couldn’t, at that point, say the word “vagina” on network or cable television, which now you can. So to your point…

All talking at once, agreeing.

And you can do it here on the official Stan Richards-endorsed and The Richards Group podcast. You can say “vagina” ad nauseam.

Kelly Piland
He’s fine.

Sarah Walker-Hall
So it’s definitely an approved word; it went through proofing. But like, but Summer’s Eve did that, and so I feel like we were out ahead of that trend. But I have to admit like when the “Like a Girl” campaign came out – that felt and then Fearless Girl on Wall Street, those felt huge to me. And I think we would be, we’d be naive to say that those things didn’t lay a foundation for #MeToo.

All
Oh, absolutely, absolutely. Yeah.

Jessica Kingman
I almost think about it. It’s kind of – you talk about the correlation and causation. But one of the things I think about hearing you guys talk is, there almost seems like there are two parallel paths happening. One was the erosion of the cultural institutions that we, for so long, held up as pariahs. At the same time, I feel like marketing folks, we started leaning into this idea of brand purpose, you know. You make the point in your trend piece that we went from talking about extra absorption to, you know, toxic masculinity and not being ashamed of being a woman. And so I wonder if these two things, you know, is it just really good circumstance that these things are kind of happening at the same time or, you know, what is your take on that?

Sarah Walker-Hall
Yeah, and I think I mean, humans by definition, I think we innately look to others for inspiration and leadership. So I think when it’s not coming from these institutions, which like when I grew up, that’s you, that’s kind of where the leadership did come from, is that brands have just naturally, again. I don’t think it’s been a conscious decision but have naturally risen to the top and a few brands, it only took a few brands to do it before other brands said, “Hey, that’s a good model. I want to do that too.” And now, of course, consumers are expecting it because we’ve been conditioned to.

Jessica Kingman
Right.

Sarah Walker-Hall
So I mean, I think it’s, I think they are highly correlated. I think it was, again, nature abhors a vacuum, the marketplace abhors a vacuum, and brands have stepped in to take the place.

Kelly Piland
Another word that we use early on a lot, and it does show up in the piece quite a bit, is this idea of responsibility. That do we actually as brands, as companies, as corporations, do we have a responsibility to be moral leaders, what is our responsibility to our consumers into society? Sure, there’s, you know, we’re going to give a portion of our profits away to help people, are going to be as sustainable as we can possibly be, this wonderful corporate response to social responsibility is wonderful. But what is the responsibility of your organization? Like we talked about brand purpose, I’m sorry, brand promise, all the time. That’s the foundation for our branding approach, our philosophy. And it’s interesting to me to think, what role does moral leadership and responsibility? How, like, how does that weave into a brand’s promise? Not just that you’re doing things, but you’re actually believing and living it day to day?

Sarah Walker-Hall
Yeah. Well, and it was interesting, because there’s a couple of good examples. I remember when REI did the Opt Outside case, right, which was great and very, pardon the language, but on-brand for them, of course, but then they corroborated and backed it up by giving their employees the day off. Yeah, so they actually took part of that as well. But it’s funny as a planner, I look at it. It’s kind of reductionist to bifurcate like this, but like Patagonia standing up for their environment to the extent it has is admirable but very much part of their ethos, right? And probably very attractive to their target audience. When I look, conversely, at what Dick’s has done with pushing guns out of the store, right? That seemed like a near-suicidal move to me because it did not seem aligned and, by some measure, I respect what Dick’s did a bit more because of their willingness to lose something in pursuit of what they seem to be. So maybe even responsibility ahead of what their consumers might expect or hope for.

Jessica Kingman
So I want to shift gears a little bit, and talk about the big three cultural institutions that you mentioned in your piece. And within it, you talk about the Catholic Church scandals, the Varsity Blues bribing scandals that, you know, brought down Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman. And then the current impeachment inquiry that’s happening. Instead of you two framing up that these were the smoking gun, the things that caused the erosion, you instead position it as the confirmation bias of our new, like, newfound distrust within these institutions. And I’m interested in why you think that that is?

Sarah Walker-Hall
So, that’s interesting. Because this is a subject, it’s really interesting that Kelly kind of came to me and talked to me because this is something I think about a lot, this topic.

Kelly Piland
That’s why I came. And your vocabulary. I used you for your vocabulary.

Sarah Walker-Hall
Awesome. I’ll take that. But in the kind of the course – I am not fun at all to live with or to be friends with because I’m always asking people their opinions about very substantive issues like the decline of religion and the like. And I heard a lot of people specifically cite the scandals over the Catholic Church as well. Of course, our faith in religion is declining – exactly – is declining because of look at all these scandals. And that was a couple of years ago, and I started to think I was like, I don’t think that’s the causation. I think that there was already a powerful erosion of that. And, of course, as we all know, as humans we sought, we seek out things that confirm our bias. So I think that, you know, the timeline there was the erosion of these things. And then scandals happen as they do, and it happened throughout time. There have been terrible scandals in the church throughout history, but it was only because at this time, we were already losing faith. That it really, it stuck, and so I think people I’ve heard talk about it as being causal, and my opinion is no, that’s just that’s not what’s been going on.

Jessica Kingman
One of the things that’s been on my mind, admittedly, is the kind of collapse of mass culture. We no longer as a society sit down and watch the same news programs, and really the kind of explosion of the Internet and smartphones have really led to this democratization of content to where people are more and more exposed to fringe, more fringe beliefs. And so I’m wondering, do you think that technology has really been the catalyst for the erosion of these cultural institutions?

Sarah Walker-Hall
I think the fragmentation that’s occurred, I mean, I think it would be impossible to look at this landscape and say that technology hasn’t been a major driving factor of what’s occurred. And I think that would be kind of ridiculous. Obviously, the fragmentation that goes on, and back to that idea of confirmation bias, our ability to find any kind of news or any kind of content that confirms what we already believe, I think creates just these fissures that, because if we look at the three institutions, we’re talking about: government, the church, and academia – those used to be things that brought us together and that bound us together as culture. And now we kind of eschew that, we don’t kind of look for that anymore; we actually look for ways to differentiate ourselves, or distinguish ourselves from others. So I think it absolutely has played a role. If you would have told me 20 years ago that the Internet would become what it is. And I’m just struck by the time that facts have never been more readily available to us at any point – I could be standing in the line at Subway, or any given location, at any given time, and find the answer to any facts or any question, but that facts are more available than they’ve ever been before, but they’re actually less relevant and less sure than they’ve ever been, is still something I have to wrap my brain around – that there’s still more misinformation out there than there’s ever been, despite the fact the true information is as readily available as it’s ever been.

Kelly Piland
Right. I love that.

Jessica Kingman
I want to switch back to focusing on brands – have how they’ve begun to take up this mantle in the face of this moral vacuum. You discuss the Business Roundtable where we saw 200 of the world’s most prominent CEOs come together and basically state that they’re shifting away from stakeholder primacy to stakeholder advocacy. And you point to Salesforce, threatening the Indiana government over their LGBTQ discrimination bill. And you also talk about Dick’s, you know, really taking stances that may alienate a population or an audience. Do you think that we’ll see more brands taking really provocative stances in the future?

Sarah Walker-Hall
I absolutely do. And even if you look within our own state, I feel like it’s sort of been two or three years ago, but it was in the Texas Legislature, the number one issue for the Texas State Legislature of that year was the transgender bathroom bill, which is mind-boggling to me that that was the most important thing in this state for us to be discussing was who can use what bathrooms. But the point is that major companies – Apple being kind of the ringleader who wanted to open an office in Austin – came out and said if you guys pass this, we’re not going to invest in Texas. And that was ultimately what precluded it from being passed, was these companies stepping in. And so even when it’s not as obvious as advertising, I think we see businesses and brands advocating even when it’s a little bit lower key. And it’s very, very effective. Because especially states like this, when you can pull it back and look at the economic investment that you’re sacrificing all of a sudden, maybe we don’t care as much about who’s using that bathroom. But I absolutely think that we’re going to see more of it again, and not just because of the vacuum that we talked about, but because at this point, consumers have been conditioned to expect it and brands, whatever business that they’re in, whatever their appetite for risk is, are in the business of responding to consumer expectation.

Kelly Piland
Yes.

Jessica Kingman
Luke DaMommio and his trend about political, the landscape really in 2020, and how politics may shape how brands function and that political context. He talks about the difference between boycotting and buycotting, so whether you just stop supporting a company because their values no longer mirror yours or you actually lean into a company because their actions or values mirror yours. Do you see – I guess my question is, buy- or boycotting feels a lot easier to me, right? It’s the absence of an action that’s an easier thing to do than actually taking an action. Do you think you’re going to see consumers actually begin buycotting or supporting businesses because of their provocative stances?

Sarah Walker-Hall
I think we already have.

Kelly Piland
I do too. We already have – there’s a portion of the trend here (or non-trend) that talks about when whether you wear Nike or whether you wear Under Armour, whether you’re eating at Chick-fil-A, or shopping at or eating at Starbucks, all of those things now say something about you. And that’s something that we’ve known inherently for a very long time that the brands that we buy, the brands that we affiliate with, say something about us. But, yes, now I believe that it’s becoming more and more important for consumers to know what that means. What does it affiliate, it doesn’t just mean that I have the means to do that, or just a…

Jessica Kingman
Right. Much like a status symbol.

Kelly Piland
…a badge as it used to be, as it used to be perceived. Now it is a badge in terms of what I stand for, what I’m, what I feel is important, and what I’m not willing to sacrifice.

Sarah Walker-Hall
And I think we’ve seen it a lot in the media realm. Actually, if you look at the subscriptions of The Washington Post, The New York Times, a lot of those, I think New York Times is up almost 50 percent since the 2016 election. And if you look at how they are positioning their subscriptions, it is literally like “support free journalism, support free speech, support.” So they are being very overt about when you buy a subscription, you’re not just getting that, but you are actually supporting something that you, in theory, believe in. So we’ve seen that especially in the media, and it’s been very effective. Now, keep in mind, these are very turbulent times from a political perspective. I don’t know if messaging like that would work in a different environment. But I think brands are being very overt and asking people to vote with their pocketbooks. Right. Typically in the past, we’ve been a little bit more implicit and tried to disguise that, as it were, but I think people are responding to that. And it is interesting, the boycotting is a little bit easier. It’s easier to cut things out of your life than to buy things that aren’t, necessarily, but I think people are especially in tune with it.

Jessica Kingman
Yeah. Sarah, you made a really good point about, you know, we always as marketers want to create affiliations with our brands and the way that The New York Times has kind of repositioned the subscription to The New York Times of supporting a free press and an unbiased journalistic freedom. I’m wondering how as, you know, brands – a CPG or as even as broad as the luxury category – how do we then, you know, approach how we message our brand in these turbulent political times?

Sarah Walker-Hall
Sorry, we, yeah, we, it’s funny, we did not get into this prescriptive, we deliberately avoided the, like, prescriptive where do we go from here? So, I don’t know that I have an answer to that other than to say, one thing I think we feel strongly about – Kelly, correct me if I’m wrong – is that this cannot be a veneer that is applied to your brand, it has to be something that is deeply held and comes from an authentic and original place. So I’d say as a planner, my job would be to engage in some kind of brand archaeology and to find, kind of to root out what belief systems might be there that we can raise to the surface and take an authentic stand on. Because one thing you especially see this – you see us a lot in the gay community right now, is there’s been this pride washing, this rainbow washing that’s gone on. I mean, the pride theme rainbow Listerine bottles were, like, they stopped me in my track at Target. And as somebody who is gay and has been out for 20 years now, it’s like, on one level, I’m, like, that is awesome that these huge CPG companies are taking a stand on an issue that is still divisive, by the way, for about a third of Americans. So I totally saluted that. But at the same time, it did not feel authentic or true to Listerine.

Both
Right.

Sarah Walker-Hall
So, and the gay population is especially good at then going and looking at the companies and where they’ve contributed their political dollars. So if you’re putting rainbow flags on your bottle of Listerine, but you’ve donated to Republican causes, then people call you out on the disconnect. So it better come from some authentic place or else. First of all, it should, just from like an ethical perspective, right? But consumers are sleuthy, and they’re skeptical, and they’ll figure it out if it doesn’t, so I don’t know if it’s a messaging issue so much as an archaeology, get into that, get into the brand and figure out what do they truly believe and how can we elevate that, perhaps.

Kelly Piland
I think it, you know, you said belief, and I think that’s something that – authenticity is paramount, I believe. But I can argue and we did, I think, in conversation, both sides of does it need to be specifically linked to the product, you said. I truly can argue both sides of that. On the one hand, you know, you see examples like, I think we talked about Brawny paper towels and what they did, the strength – I’m going to screw up the campaign. Do you remember what it’s called? The strength of a woman?

Jessica Kingman
Yeah.

Kelly Piland
So, that’s the idea.

Both
Yeah.

Kelly Piland
Where they changed the Brawny man on the packaging to a woman, they had all kinds of content behind it. I don’t know if they gave to any organizations, I don’t know what they did. But anyways, it felt authentic because it was true to their audience and felt very, very authentic to what they believed. On the other hand, you see some where it’s so disconnected, you can’t, you can’t tie it back to – where did this come from?

Jessica Kingman
Yeah.

Kelly Piland
Was this like white space that they felt like needed to be filled and…and the con space. On the other hand, yet another third hand that we all have, is a phenomenal example of that, I think, is Toms and what they’ve done with gun violence. And what’s interesting there, I think is, you know, you can’t tie it. It was Blake Mycoskie being tired of what was happening with gun violence and having it hit close to home, literally, in a mass shooting near his home in Thousand Oaks, and he said “Enough. Enough’s enough.” And then very quickly they moved on it. That is something you can’t tie necessarily gun violence or gun control back to their mission, and they’re a mission-driven organization.

Jessica Kingman
Right, right. For sure.

Kelly Piland
That’s another element to it. But it felt authentic, and it felt like they were willing to deliver it.

Sarah Walker-Hall
And, see, I think the interesting point, I think that’s a great point. But I think the point that’s important there is that that felt very true. There was a story behind it, it came from a very personal place. I will cite as a bad example, on the flip side of that, Stella Artois a number of years ago did a campaign to provide water for the world, potable water, which is obviously an admirable goal. But they tried to tie it back to beer by saying beer is brewed from water, we believe everyone should have water, and it just, it felt so disingenuous, because I think there’s one way to do where it’s highly correlated to what you do and we all like that. Toms, the original Toms, would be a great example. Right? One for one. And I think there’s a place for when it comes from the founder and something personal happened to you and you can tell that that’s coming from a true, authentic, personal place. I think the bad place to be is to try to massage it, right? Beer’s made of water. So it just felt like, it felt very marketing, right? It felt very managed.

Jessica Kingman
Yeah. And to me, it begs the question then, is if a purpose is derived from commercial reasons vs. really true, altruistic reasons, right, like what the origin of those brand purpose, it feels like that is what truly makes something connect or feel more authentic.

Kelly Piland
Yeah, for sure. You know what I mean? It just strikes me – you will never know. Right?

Jessica Kingman
Right.

Kelly Piland
You can’t know. I mean, I think Blake Mycoskie’s Toms example with gun violence is a great example of something that you have to believe that authentically he was moved and said, “I’ve got a platform. What can we do? I think I probably have like-minded people who are engaged with me.” And so he was able to, I mean, that very much feels authentic. But I think otherwise when it does reach us through more marketing means, when it’s a new campaign that’s launched that, for every dollar that you spend, every bottle that you buy, $1 will go to it-gets-better, you know, who knows what it is, but you then, you start to go, why are they doing? Yeah, did what? Because you know how it can happen? Yeah, there was consumer research that was totally done – which of the following issues are most important to you? Which of the following issues do you think relates? But I mean, we know how it would happen.

Jessica Kingman
So it seems like you know, if we talk about brand purpose and marketing, really, I think a little bit of the genesis of that, or a lot of it, we could probably argue both ways, is consumers’ expectations for brands. And do you think that that will evolve as we get into 2020 and beyond?

Sarah Walker-Hall
So, I mean, we’ve got stats and they’re stats galore that like 53 percent of consumers believe brands can do more to solve social problems. And again, I think as with everything in consumer behavior, there’s now been brands that have done that, so now I’m kind of – we’ve got that line in there, “Brands, our lonely nation turns its eyes to you.” The less we believe in the structural institutions to solve problems, the more power we give to brands. So, yes, I definitely see that, I definitely see that coming up.

Kelly Piland
And the more we give them power, the more they have ability.

Both
Yeah, right. Yeah.

Sarah Walker-Hall
So and it just goes back to, I mean, it’s like the old adage, like, “With great power comes great responsibility.” And I think everyone in the United States now, we’re very consumer-driven, you know, average-consumer-driven country. And I think we realize how much power brands have, how much money they have to talk, how much, I mean, how much influence they have. I think, I hear more people talk about themselves as brands these days. I mean, like, as we all know, the word brand used to be something that I considered part of my professional argot. And now it’s a word that even, you know, little kids use all the time. So brands become such a bigger presence in our life. And I think that’s part of the reason we expect them to have broader shoulders as well as responsibilities as we realize how critical they are to every part of our life, and we turn to them and say, “Hey, couldn’t you be using your powers for good?”

Jessica Kingman
I’m thinking about the earlier point made about the lobbying power that brands have. I mean, do you just see that as, you know, as a consumer. Sarah, to your point, you know, I look at all the money, right, that an Amazon or an Apple or a Google has, and it’s, you know, why aren’t you doing more to then invest back into the communities that have invested in you?

Sarah Walker-Hall
It’s funny because I’m tracing as a member of the LGBTQ community, like I am very, have been hypersensitive to this whole dynamic my entire life. In fact, I remember the first Pride Parade I went to in Dallas, which would have been 1999, was basically Andrews Distributors, so that the alcohol distributors and a bunch of PFLAG, which is the parents and friends of lesbians and gays, and now it is this massive, like, cultural explosion of brands and all of that. And so I’ve been always very in tune to brands that are willing to take a stand on an issue that’s very personal for me. And I have to admit that when Cheerios did, they cast a gay couple in their commercial, I mean, this would have been eight years ago, it felt like such a moment, for me, and it whet my appetite. Though, now I kind of expect, not expect, but have hope that brands will stand up and take a stand on issues that are important to me. And I have to acknowledge that I even admired to some degree companies like Chick-fil-A, even though my belief set does not align with theirs, they have not stepped down, it comes from an authentic place, and they did not kowtow to pressure from people on the left, and they continue to do what’s important to them. So I think it’s important to recognize, actually, on both sides of the political spectrum, that it’s – I don’t even know if that maybe expectation is the right word – but it’s hope that because there’s now a precedent of brands standing up for groups and people and issues, there’s a hope for me that they will continue to do so. Now that I’m thinking about that word expectation, it might be a bit strong, and I don’t know.

Jessica Kingman
Well, what’s interesting too. I mean, you mentioned eight years ago when Cheerios had a gay couple in their advertising. That was remarkable. Yeah, it was unexpected. It was surprising. And today, less so.

Sarah Walker-Hall
Oh, oh yeah.

Jessica Kingman
So my brain immediately goes to, well, what’s next? What is next in showing consumers that we are willing to stand up for what’s important to you?

Sarah Walker-Hall
That’s a really great question.

Jessica Kingman
We’re there. Right? Like, we’re pretty much there.

Sarah Walker-Hall
Yeah. Because again, one of the points you make in the article is when I was cutting – I won’t project from you, Kelly – but when I was cutting my teeth as a planner, it really was like, how do we define our target audience in a way that we attract as many people as we possibly can while alienating as few people as possible. That was literally the formula we worked against. Right? How do we open our arms as wide as we possibly can?

Kelly Piland
How many wallets can we encircle in our target?

Sarah Walker-Hall
Exactly. And so it’s a very different approach now. So now we see brands willing to – this quote from Phil Knight, I ran across from Nike this, the Nike CEO this week – but he said it doesn’t matter how many brands hate, sorry, how many people hate you, it doesn’t matter how many people hate your brand, it’s how many people love your brand. So there’s this willingness now to polarize, but I don’t know, you know. And what I see now is I see more mainstream brands doing it, especially when it just comes to the casting in commercials. And now it doesn’t feel obviously as, it doesn’t feel as provocative and risk taking, so it doesn’t feel as powerful to me.

Kelly Piland
And somehow authentic.

Sarah Walker-Hall
Yes.

Kelly Piland
I know that straight…

Sarah Walker-Hall
No, it does, because we’ve also been privy to the meetings where people sit around and say, “Okay, it’s going to be a multiracial couple. It’s going to be good.” I mean, we hear how deliberate and strategic, which is usually a good word, but I think in this case, maybe not. But it feels very deliberate. And that’s, partially that’s great. But also it feels more manufactured.

Kelly Piland
Yeah. And disingenuous.

Jessica Kingman
Yeah. I think one of the, one of my favorite lines that I literally just copied and pasted it into my little discussion guide here, but you asked a really excellent question toward the end of your trend. Can commercial interest altruistically lead morality or is that cultural double helix fundamentally flawed? So I have to ask you guys, do you two believe that brand should be the moral compass of our society?

Sarah Walker-Hall
Well, it’s interesting because Kelly and I were actually talking earlier today about the role businesses play, especially in American, kind of our hagiography. I can’t, I mean, this is a country that values especially small business, entrepreneurialism, bootstrapping, sleeve rolling – we value business to a degree that I don’t know that other countries do. It is literally part of our DNA, back to Puritan work ethic and all of that. So I think of all countries, we would have the highest expectations and the biggest wants from brands and businesses to kind of step in and assume moral leadership. Yeah, I mean, that’s the ongoing political discussion, right? Who’s best to solve problems: businesses or government? So it seems like of all countries, this would be the one where we most expect brands to do that. My big lookout is the authenticity piece.

Kelly Piland
Yeah, absolutely.

Sarah Walker-Hall
Is it true to your organization; does it feel true? And can you, are you in a position where you can help solve problems? Because there’s a little bit of a difference between taking a stand and actually solving the problem.

Kelly Piland
You’re absolutely right. That’s where my brain was going. I mean, the example of Salesforce, which we’ve already mentioned, that’s making a change, taking an action.

Sarah Walker-Hall
Indiana would have different laws about the LGBTQ community right now, if it weren’t for Salesforce.

Kelly Piland
Apple in Texas.

Sarah Walker-Hall
Yeah.

Kelly Piland
Those are great examples.

Sarah Walker-Hall
Exactly. Yeah, everything that we’re talking about is great and sounds good, but it’s also dangerous. And so I think that’s part of the allure for me, honestly, as a planner, is that audacious and that it takes confidence, but it also, it puts yourself out there for a lot of investigation and potentially a lot of backlash.

Kelly Piland
Yeah. And I think that’s, you know, when we landed this conversation, I’m sorry, this trend and writing it, bravery is really where I ended up after reading, you know, back through it and thinking about what are the possible outcomes, what happens next here? Yeah, bravery of these organizations that are willing to do it. There’s something that just keeps coming back to me.

Jessica Kingman
So, to read more about Sarah and Kelly’s trend, The Marketplace Abhors a Vacuum, as well as our other trends we predict will make an impact in the advertising landscape in 2020, please go to trends.richards.com. Kelly, Sarah, thank you both very much.

Both
Thank you.

 

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