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By Joel Foster

Avoiding the Hero Trap: Brands Should Activate, Not Dictate Their Activism

We all remember where we were on the events of April 4, 2017. A mob crowded the streets, encircling a line of police as the tensions rose to mercury-busting levels. 

Then, out of nowhere, just as the powder keg is about to burst…Kendall Jenner hands a can of Pepsi to a hot cop.

The infamous Pepsi ad was rightfully skewered, quickly becoming an example of how not to do corporate social activism and eventually leading Pepsi to issue a public apology. 

Among a host of offenses, Pepsi was accused of co-opting a legitimate social movement to increase sales, along with offering a stupidly simplistic solution to a complex problem.

But Pepsi wasn’t the only brand to shoot themselves in the foot while trying to appear purposeful.

KFC made Pepsi look like Ben & Jerry’s when the Double-Down Sandwich slingers released their Buckets For the Cure campaign in partnership with Susan G. Komen Foundation (an organization with their own problems). The campaign promised to donate fifty cents for every bucket of chicken purchased, a scheme that the public found distasteful in more ways than one. Beyond using cancer research as a cheap tie-in, the company failed to see the irony in supporting cancer research by selling a product that may increase the chances of getting cancer .

Then there’s poor Mastercard, who pledged 10,000 meals to starving children…for each goal scored by Messier or Neymar. Sure, it was a nice enough gesture, but as football writer Henry Winter wrote, “Why not give them the meals anyway?” 

We Don’t Need Another Hero

Ethical issues aside, these three campaigns show the folly of brands trying to be the hero instead of letting their consumers play a role. By framing themselves as the solution to a problem, they shut their consumers out of developing a deeper connection to the brand through taking action on the issues meaningful to their lives.

Thomas Kolster, author of Goodvertising, tackles the idea of the Hero Trap in his book of the same name. Kolster claims that there’s “too many Mother Theresas” in the purposeful branding space, with brands boasting about their efforts to save the world while ignoring the role of their consumers. This paternal, “we’ve got this” attitude doesn’t just lead to apathy toward the world, but also the brand.

Writing in a Contagious blog, Kolster asks:

“What brand has changed your life for the better? Taught you something new? Made you healthier? Sparked new thinking? Probably not many.”

In Kolster’s view, for brands to truly serve a purpose, they need to actually create value for their customers. A multinational corporation donating millions to charity or speaking out on issues may feel good, but it accomplishes little from the customer’s point of view. 

Rather, Kolster says that, “We don’t need more brands preaching, we need coaches who can help us achieve our goals or overcome obstacles.” 

It might sound grandiose to assume that a brand can help people “overcome obstacles.” It’s just buying and selling stuff at the end of the day. But think about our favorite brands and the reasons why we stay loyal. Peloton helps us get in shape, Amazon gets us stuff fast and cheap. Our lasting support depends on a brand’s ability to solve our problems.

But how do we replicate this model in service of doing good? 

How to Create a Hero

Last Week Tonight With John Oliver recently won its sixth consecutive Emmy, proving that programming doesn’t need to be dumbed down in order to be successful. While the show has been heralded for covering complex, underreported stories with sharp humor, the show also excels at creating micro-activists out of their audience and having fun while doing it.

Just a few of Oliver’s stunts include:

In all these examples, Oliver was able to spur his audience into action after educating them about an issue they may not have previously been familiar with. In essence, he helped his viewers solve a problem they didn’t know existed. Marketing at its finest.

From Fashion to Action

Brands have begun to follow the John Oliver playbook by creating easy ways for their followers to take action on social issues.

In 2017, the Trump administration reduced protections for Bears Ears National Monument by 85%. In response, outdoor apparel company Patagonia sued the administration to reverse the ruling. Patagonia then created a website that provided information about Bears Ears and allowed visitors to easily contact their legislators about the issue.

Sure, Patagonia could have just financed the legal fight and let someone else worry about the details. Instead, they involved their followers through every step, creating a feeling of collective power more powerful than a simple monetary donation.

Lacoste is another brand that found an easy way for customers to give back with their Give For Good project. The clothing brand asked customers to send back old and unwanted items from their wardrobe using the same shipping box. The company printed over 40,000 shipping labels as part of the initiative that aimed to curb textile waste, which reached 17 million tons in 2018.

How We Empower

At BRINK, we encourage the brands we work with to find ways to better connect with their customers. Last year we partnered with the City of Tucson to conceive and launch a campaign to increase census self response rates in the city.

The campaign urged community members to “Claim What’s Yours” by emphasizing the direct benefits of completing the Census and highlighted the various communities of Tucson that would benefit. After just six weeks, we were able to help the city increase self response rates by 12% and help propel Tucson above the state’s average.

The lesson here is if you truly want to be a brand for change, sometimes it’s best to get out of your customer’s way. Rather than being the change maker, enable your customers to make the change. The experience of feeling empowered will always be more memorable than any purchase, no matter how much is given to charity.

So don’t settle for being a brand that does good. Be a brand that helps others do good.

By Joel Foster