When a once-dominant brand faces increasing competition, decreasing loyalty and declining sales, it takes risks.

While some might turn to gimmicks like giveaways, price drops and rebranding or repositioning campaigns, others pursue approaches that are more narrative-based, and align with relevant and resonant causes.

The latter was the tact taken by mega-brand Gillette which, on January 13, unveiled We Believe: The Best Men Can Be, a new purpose-driven campaign that addresses the societal topic of toxic masculinity in the wake of the #MeToo movement.

Seemingly aimed at millennial males, the “short film” (which attempts to put a modern spin on the brand’s venerable “The Best A Man Can Get” slogan) drew instant fire, propelling Gillette and its parent company, P&G, into “trending topics” territory where it’s since remained.

Polarizing and described as preachy, pretentious and perfunctory, the spot has garnered more than 17 million views, 450,000 “thumbs up,” 871,000 “thumbs down,” and 251,000 comments on YouTube alone, and continues to generate backlash from customers (and even a few competitors) on channels like Facebook and Twitter. Many consumers have demanded boycotts and announcing shifts to rivals like Schick, Harry’s and Dollar Shave Club.

Defending the brand’s decision to Fast Company, Gillette brand director Pankaj Bhalla described masculinity as a “complex and layered topic” adding that debate and conversations were expected.

“I want to be respectful to the folks who didn’t necessarily like the ad and had a point of view on it – they are absolutely entitled to it,” he added. “But the ad is not about all men being bad. The intention is to say, ‘All of you guys are great; how about you be an even better role model for your kids?’ That’s it. That’s the ad.”

Early analyses of related conversations suggest that the negative reactions found on social media aren’t a reflection of the general population’s opinion of Gillette or their latest effort. According to one pundit, “viewers of all ages, genders, ethnicities, incomes, and locales overwhelmingly loved and supported the message behind (the ad) with very strong emotions evoked.”

Love it or hate it, “The Best Men Can Be” is the latest in a string of bold moves made by a challenged brand (see Always’ Like A Girl for another fine example) in our increasingly desperate times. Some early lessons emerge, too:

  • Preparing for backlash is table stakes for brands.
    Public opinions and reactions will always vary, so having a plan in place is key.
  • Conversations can easily veer off-topic.
    The chatter about Gillette’s “The Best Men Can Be” rapidly moved from the ad itself to the brand’s business practices (and larger CPG issues like pink tax). Developing message tracks to keep a brand (while anticipating ancillary discussions) is a core component of any communications plan. 
  • Go all in.
    Though not widely reported, widely reported, Gillette’s new ad is just a small part of a larger campaign that reinforces the brand’s commitment to long-held values like respect, accountability and role modeling, as well as cause-related activities (more about that here). Net-net: it’s okay to be bold; just stand your ground when the going gets tough.
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