With the advent of the 2017 #MeToo movement, companies have seen unprecedented upheaval as they face calls to address industry sexual harassment and assault. Multiple high-profile individuals with decades of experience in their chosen field have been publicly shamed and forced to resign. Both individuals and companies face the possibility of criminal prosecution and a growing number of multi-million dollar lawsuits.
But what about brands? For decades, companies across industries have approached their advertising strategies with the old adage that sex sells. Small business and multi-billion dollar brands alike reached astounding success by shocking and titillating their viewers. Perrier’s infamous 1976 ad was promptly banned in France but did nothing to deter the brand’s global takeover of the carbonated water market it helped create. The gold standard in innuendo-laden advertising continues to inspire marketing for both carbonated beverages and deodorants today. Ever since the 2004 Super Bowl “wardrobe malfunction,” the most-watched television event of the year has increasingly been marked by “sexy ads” from the likes of GoDaddy and Carl’s Jr. During the ‘80s and ‘90s, companies including Victoria’s Secret and Abercrombie & Fitch were recreated around branding that pushed sex first and foremost into the consumer’s mind.
The push to move away from sex-based branding is not new. Over the past few years, brands have faced growing calls from consumers to hold themselves to a higher social standard. In 2015, Abercrombie & Fitch overhauled its two decade-long branding strategy following a troubling decline in sales. Victoria’s Secret has faced growing competition from younger brands like Aerie that focus on body positivity. The lingerie company that used to be the unchallenged leader in the global category it redefined seems increasingly irrelevant; ratings for its most recent Fashion Show fell nearly 30% to under 5 million viewers.
Lubin Lawrence’s 2018 Gen Z: The Misunderstood Generation study shows a rising generation of consumers defined by serious social activism with the means, dedication, and skills to back it up. In the era of the #MeToo movement, brands must find a way to answer changing consumer values. However, companies that change course without fully understanding the values driving consumer purchases stand in danger of merely mimicking current trends, only to drown in the sea of like-minded advertising. Worse, they might rebrand themselves only for their efforts to be seen as out-of-touch pandering by a company desperate to mask past failures.
By understanding the Fundamental Human Values that drive both current and prospective consumers, brands will be able to stay ahead of trends and answer the growing call for social accountability. Presently, brands that fail to address social concerns – or insult consumer values – will find themselves alienated by public opinion or worse.