Content Strategy

A Brand Messaging Conundrum: Is Your Company Too Scared to Have an Opinion?

By Lauren McMenemy on July 3, 2018

Brands taking a stand on hot-button issues has become something of a cliché-everyone's at it today. There's even been a slew of articles in the marketing press-Content Standard included-about how brands lost their fear of controversy and got political in 2017, no doubt partially driven by the extreme political times we all find ourselves living in.

Yet being a socially or politically conscious brand isn't itself a differentiator. When everyone is getting political, brand messaging is still in danger of becoming samey, vanilla, and boring. It's why challenger brands get so much attention. They've seen a gap or an issue in the market and take risks to try to fill that gap and prove to everyone that they bring something different to the industry.

And there's the key. Challengers represent something different. When every brand is taking a stand on White House policies, how can you ensure you stand out in your industry and show off your expert credentials?

Writing in The Drum, John DeVine says there are few more powerful business assets in the digital age than a powerful brand. "Brands are infused with meaning. They're a signal amid the noise. The best represent a strong message and a promise," he writes. "Brand identity is more meaningful now for this reason. To rise above the noise and make a mark in consumers' minds, strong and resonant brands have unique value."

DeVine urges us to look at millennials, the most brand-loyal generation. Despite public skepticism, 64 percent of millennials say they're more loyal to brands than their parents. "Building a strong brand is about building relationships with customers and standing out from the crowd," he says. And your brand messaging is where you start that journey.

Neon sign with wording

Image attribution: Steve Harvey

Yes, brand messaging is a result of your brand purpose and strategy, but remember that tactics are not strategy. David Chriswich, head of brand strategy at DigitasLBi Chicago, in an interview with WARC, makes clear the difference between brand purpose and purpose-led campaigns. He uses State Street as the example, saying that just because they were behind Fearless Girl does not make "empowering women" their brand purpose.

"The strategic intent of brand purpose should, first and foremost, be to help the brand stand out more, be more relevant, remembered by more people, and, ultimately, lead to sales in some way after execution," he says. "To me, brand purpose should simply be an ambitious, motivating reason why a brand exists. Think about Google's purpose to organize the world's information and to make it more accessible, or Nike's purpose to empower everyone's inner athlete. They are all more centered around what the products are good at than some saintly promise to change the world."

Yet it's easier to find examples of brands expressing political and social opinions than opinions about their industry and what they do. Throughout my career as a brand journalist, I've tried to coax opinions out of subject matter experts, with most shying away for compliance reasons, claiming legal will never let them express certain sentiments. Best to be safe, they say.

I call bull dust. I spoke with two brands that are opinionated about their industry to find out how they have the courage to put their head above the parapet.

E.ON: Creating a Better Tomorrow and Encouraging Sustainability

Energy company E.ON is taking a stand not only in its messaging but in how the company operates. Known for decades as an energy supplier, it's shifted focus to energy services with a vision to "improve people's lives." Conventional energy has been split out of the upstream portfolio, and E.ON now focuses on "creating a better tomorrow" with decentralized energy, customer solutions, and energy networks. Bringing in a stronger mix of renewable energy sources is a big part of creating that better tomorrow.

"For us, it's important that we reduce the carbon footprint of our business customers while at the same time taking away the anxiousness that profitability and production may be affected," says Ilke Rangette, head of global B2B marketing at E.ON, speaking from the German head office. "It's a step commitment towards a sustainable future, and really pushing businesses forward into that new era of sustainability. And if you really believe in it, it's also important that you publicly commit so you drive the whole industry in the same direction."

E.ON is definitely leading the energy industry in Europe. They were the first big utility company to split out their portfolio, and others swiftly followed. Their commitment to sustainability comes from the top, with CEO Dr. Johannes Teyssen outlining commitments to reduce absolute CO2 footprint by 30 percent by 2030, and to reduce the CO2 intensity of the electricity they sell by 50 percent. Go to E.ON's website and you'll find a running dashboard of sustainability performance. These same visuals are also prominent features in E.ON's marketing.

Image taken from E.ON's sustainability dashboard

Rangette believes a company with opinions, with purpose, needs to not only state that purpose in its advertising and marketing; it needs to permeate through the whole business, through internal communications, through recruitment, through job roles and ways of working. Everyone needs to be pulling towards the same vision. She recalls the story of President Kennedy visiting NASA and asking a janitor what he was doing at the agency: "Sir, I'm putting a man on the moon."

"If you work for an FMCG brand, the sustainability and impact you can have on society as an employee might not be that direct, but in our B2B business, the environmental and societal impact you can create with just one contract or just one solution really matters. That's why I think if you are a purposeful brand-and if as a business you publicly commit to that purpose in front of peers, employees, and customers-you wake up in the morning and really want to go to work every day to make tomorrow better. You wake up with a different drive," she says.

"It does take courage. There may be a fear that you can't prove your purpose, or that you have an extreme view or ambition. I think this is also part of authenticity-you want to have trust in society, and to have your customers' trust, so whatever you claim you need to deliver.

"People sometimes underestimate the hypnotic impact a brand can have throughout a whole organization; it can be a catalyst of transformation. This is also true for any statements you make. It might be 'create a better tomorrow,' it might be 'think different,' but to have a purposeful goal and a purposeful direction can work as a cultural transformer.

"We want to be a thought leader and somebody that drives things forward for the better. That is why to commit publicly to our vision, to our brand positioning, to things we want to do in the B2B area, is important. I think at the end we are all in it together. The more energy providers think in the way we do, the more impact it will have on the environment and on society as well."

Planet Fitness: The Judgement-Free Zone Brings Regular Joe to the Gym

Planet Fitness' founders saw the entire fitness industry competing for those 20 percent of people who are total gym junkies-the type who is there every day lifting weights and grunting in the mirror-and wondered who was catering to the other 80 percent of the population.

Enter Planet Fitness's Judgement-Free Zone, a place for those who have never been to a gym or who are intimidated by fitness, but still want to give it a go. Add extremely affordable prices (what else can you get in Manhattan for $10 a month?) and a welcoming atmosphere, and it's no wonder they're one of the largest and fastest-growing health club chains in the US.

"I think what's really interesting about Planet Fitness is we really have a different point of view in the industry," says McCall Gosselin, VP of PR and communications. "For us, being known as the Judgement-Free Zone means you can come in and get a good work out, and it doesn't matter what you're wearing or if you've never used the equipment. It truly is not just a marketing slogan; we design the gym to make sure we take down those barriers. Everything from our marketing to how the gym is designed really caters to that 80 percent of the population."

Detail taken from Planet Fitness's Planet of Triumphs platform

Everything Planet Fitness does works to that messaging, promoting the opinion that fitness should be for everyone, not just muscle-bound bodybuilders and yogis in designer active wear. Take a look at their Instagram-style website Planet of Triumphs, a platform for members to share their inspirations and their successes. You'll see people of all sizes, ethnicities, and income levels. These aren't dolled-up models: They're real people, achieving real things, and getting nothing but encouragement from the brand.

Then there's their campaign to celebrate the dad bod as well as their Judgement-Free Generation charitable initiative to combat bullying through creating a culture of kindness and encouragement. They even have a Times Square New Years Eve sponsorship, encouraging people to reflect on the year just gone and be aspirational for the year to come. Everything Planet Fitness does follows its brand messaging of embracing judgement-free zones, and in doing so they are taking a stand against how their industry usually operates. Who would ever consider a $10-a-month gym with top-quality equipment and a for-everyone attitude to be the norm in the competitive fitness world?

"I always go back to if you stand for everything you stand for nothing," says Gosselin. "You need to know what you're good at. If you really harness that power, you never look back. If you try to be everything to everyone you will not succeed.

"We know who our target is. We know there are people who'd like to come here who are more serious gym-goers and we don't have the equipment for them, but we understand what we offer and who our customer is. It's like the analogy of McDonald's knowing that if someone wants a high-end steak, they won't go to McDonald's. We're OK with that because we know who we are."

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Feature image attribution: Clem Onojeghuo


Lauren McMenemy

Lauren is a storyteller. A journalist by trade, she has worked in agencies, in-house and in the media over her 20-year career. She's worked as an editorial strategist and content creator for some of the world's biggest brands, setting up processes and guidelines, advising on planning, auditing content, building loyal audiences, leading social campaigns, writing blogs and flyers and presentations - pretty much handling the stuff with words. She was born in Australia, has resided in London for the last decade, and writes fiction on the side. You’ll often find her grinning like a fool at a rock concert.