Last month, Lauren McMenemy pitched a story for the Content Standard that threw me for a loop. She wanted to write about her experience balancing her career in content marketing with her depression and anxiety.
My reaction was complicated. You see, I’m a born-and-bred New Englander. We’re brought up to believe that shovelling snow builds character, that pulling yourself up by your bootstraps is the key to success, and that talking about your feelings is for people from California or wherever. My instinctive reaction to such a public and personal discussion of mental illness was intense discomfort.
But Lauren’s story, give or take a few details, is also my own. I’d love to say that what gets me out of bed each morning is my innate Yankee industriousness, but it’s really a healthy dose of Effexor. While I talk a lot of talk about getting rid of the stigma that surrounds mental illness, I’ve never discussed my own depression outside of my immediate family and friends. The thought of taking the step Lauren was proposing—telling her story under her own name! On the Internet where anyone can read it! Where it will live forever!—scared the crap out of me.
That fear, though, was exactly what I needed, because it made me realize just how important it was to have Lauren tell her story.
Still, I hemmed and hawed. “Yes, it’s an important story,” I said to our editorial team, “but is this really the appropriate place to publish it? I mean, it’s not about content marketing, really . . .”
To their credit, they looked down their noses at me and told me to stop being ridiculous, and so onto the publishing calendar it went.
Image attribution: Benjamin Child
People who want to change the world don’t usually set out to become marketers. They pursue careers in public policy or social work or non-profit management.
That’s not to say that marketers don’t care about social issues. We’re not (all) hard-hearted, Mad Men-esque manipulators of emotion, selling impossible dreams to impressionable people. We care about social good just like any other human beings—it just doesn’t usually intersect with our careers.
But every now and then, those two spheres collide, as they did to me. Part of my reticence to publish Lauren’s story came from my difficulty talking about my own mental health, but I was also plagued by a nagging doubt: Is it my place to use the platform our brand affords me as a tool to effect change?
I’m not alone in confronting this question. Two different trends are converging right now to push marketers into an unaccustomed role.
Image attribution: Zoe Deal
A 2015 study from Cone Communications found that a whopping 71 percent of consumers were willing to pay a premium for goods or services from socially and environmentally conscious brands. This preference is even more pronounced in millennials, so as the buying power of my generational cohort grows, brands will have even more incentive to act responsibly.
For brands to see financial returns from their CSR activities, though, someone has to tell that story to all those consumers clamoring for socially responsible products. Consumers have grown accustomed to marketing that displays corporate values—is it much of a leap to marketing that enacts corporate values?
We’ve written extensively about the death of interrupt advertising and its counterpoint, the rise of content marketing. To get audience attention, marketers have moved into a space previously occupied only by traditional media publishers, producing content that is as much—or more—about entertaining consumers as it is about selling to them.
The do-gooders and advocates of the world don’t hold a monopoly on progressive social influence. The media world has a long history of influencing public perception. It isn’t only journalism, either: Arts and entertainment have been shaping opinions about social issues from Uncle Tom’s Cabin to Will & Grace. And much like traditional media, marketers have a growing ability to influence the conversation about important subjects.
So we have permission, in the form of the socially conscious consumer, and we have a platform, in the form of content marketing. The question, then, is whether we recognize the opportunity to use marketing not just to talk about doing good but to actually do something good.
If there’s a single brand to look to as a role model, it’s Dove. Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty was challenging beauty stereotypes before it was cool: since 2004 to be exact. That their commitment to body diversity in their advertising doesn’t seem like anything special today is testament to just how successful their campaign has been.
Dove’s campaign hasn’t gone without controversy—their bizarre “Real Beauty Bottles” were a serious misstep for the brand, and there’s no escaping the underlying hypocrisy of parent company Unilever also producing the blatantly problematic Fair & Lovely skin-whitening cream—but its legacy is a wave of body-positive and inclusive advertising in the beauty and fashion industries. Notable examples include CoverGirl’s diverse “beauty ambassadors” (featuring their first CoverBoy James Charles and hijab-wearing beauty blogger Nura Afia) and lingerie brand Aerie’s pledge to stop airbrushing their models.
Consumer products aren’t the only companies using their marketing to effect change. One way B2B brands can join the conversation is by focusing not on their immediate customer but on the end user.
Medical device manufacturer Hologic provides an excellent example with their Change the Cycle microsite, which seeks to educate women about menstrual health. By creating a safe online space for women to discuss a deeply taboo topic, they prompt women to get medical attention for pervasive problems that many choose to ignore out of embarrassment.
Few content marketers are in a position to launch our own counterpart to the Campaign for Real Beauty—we lack Dove’s brand reach, or we’re not senior enough to lead an initiative of that import. But we do have a platform that we can use for positive influence, or at the very least to avoid the negative influences thoughtless content can create.
Fellow B2B content marketers are likely aware of the ways lack of diversity in the industries we sell to can find their way into our content. We can push back by actively representing women and people of color as senior professionals. In a previous job with a strategy consultancy, I was notorious for “updating” the hypothetical CEO in our case studies—is the case study any less valid if Joe Smith becomes Jane Gonzalez? And we can elevate underrepresented voices by soliciting their expert commentary for our content and seating them on panels and editorial advisory boards.
Our choice of stock photography is yet another subtle but important way to use our content marketing for good. Getty Images’ collaboration with Lean In and Women of Color in Tech’s image collection challenge stereotypical representations and fill a much-needed gap in stock imagery.
Image attribution: WOCinTech
And, of course, we can occasionally stretch our content boundaries to give a platform to stories that need one.
I’m under no illusions that publishing an article on a taboo subject or committing to positive representations of women in stock photography will have an enormous impact, except perhaps in aggregate. I am convinced, however, that subtle influence is influence nonetheless, because my own experience proves my point. Publishing Lauren’s article is not going to break the stigma around mental illness, but it did break my silence.
Had Lauren not chosen to share her story, and had my colleagues not cajoled me into taking a chance on publishing it, I would not have come out publicly with my own mental health problems—something I’ve been afraid to do since I was diagnosed more than ten years ago. I lack the words to convey just what a big deal this is for me, and I quite literally work with words for a living.
So hats off to you, Lauren, for giving me the kick in the pants I needed. And to my fellow content marketers: We’re lucky to have a platform. Let’s use it to be a good influence.
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