We live in an age of scandal. It feels like a week doesn’t go by without a shocking exposé that provokes public outrage. Be it tax evading politicians, doping athletes or deceitful automotive manufacturers, it’s getting more difficult for anyone to hide wrong doings.
We hear apology after apology from public figures, regulatory bodies and brands alike.
Consumers’ expectations from brands in terms of moral, social, economic and environmental responsibility is higher than ever before. If a brand messes up, consumers won’t be afraid to publicly name and shame.
This means that brands are scared, so dilute their proposition, become bland and boring, and struggle to really stand for anything meaningful. There is a fear that anything could offend anyone, so it’s better to be safe than sorry. Better to have a watered down message, than a provocative one.
As Joan D. Vinge elegantly puts it, "Indifference is the strongest force in the universe, it makes everything it touches meaningless." In order for a brand to mean something, it must have a distinct point of view.
What’s less important is everyone agreeing with this point of view. As the famous Apple campaign "Think Different" said about those who go against the status quo, "You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. … "
That’s why we have "provocation" in our job titles; you can’t ignore provocation, and that’s the point.
I’m bored with the culture of apology in branding and advertising. Sure, for things on the scale of the Volkswagen emissions or Tesco horsemeat scandals, serious public apologies are essential. It’s the brands that bend over backwards to apologize because a handful of people complained about an ad, or brands that have a general air of apology that need to start standing up for themselves.
The 2015 Protein World "Are you beach body ready?" print ad sparked outrage. Forty thousand people signed a petition to get it banned. I am a feminist and an advocator of positive body image; however, this brand of reactive feminism I really don’t care for.
The ad wasn’t about body shaming. And how is it any different from the images of unattainable beauty we see on every single magazine cover, perfume ad and catwalk show? I believe we have bigger fish to fry.
Protein World stuck to their guns. They were right to; the ad is totally aligned with what they’re about, and clearly resonated with their target consumers, as they earned 5,000 new customers within four days of the ad going live.
In their recent follow up TV/digital ad the frames flip between women working out (running, surfing, yoga) and also partying, dancing in the sun and eating ice cream, once again using the line, "Are you beach body ready?"
This hits a clever balance between the pursuit of beauty and athletic performance, which are two — equally legitimate — reasons why people work out.
Why should working out to look good be shamed? I wholeheartedly admit that my main incentive for dragging myself to the gym after a long day is vanity. I want to look good. The collateral emotional and physical wellbeing that comes with exercise is a great thing, but it’s secondary for me. Why should I be made to feel that this is shameful, or anti-feminist? Keep it up, Protein World, you’re being honest. And that’s important.
You can’t keep everyone happy all the time. What is frustrating is watching brands trying to be all things to all people, and ending up becoming not very much, to anyone. Hiut Denim's unapologetic sign off on their site – "Yup, we just make jeans. That’s all, folks" – makes them truly stand out in the crowded world of denim. You trust them because they do one thing really, really well.
Levi’s, on the other hand, lost its way by trying to do too much. They now stock a mind-boggling range of jeans alongside other clothes and accessories too. I know where I’d rather buy my jeans.
The learning here is that it’s OK to piss people off sometimes. Yvon Chouniard, founder of Patagonia, said, "If you’re not pissing off 50% of people, you’re not trying hard enough."
One of my all time favorite apologies was BrewDog’s wonderfully on-brand reaction to the Portman Group banning Dead Pony Club ale: "On behalf of BrewDog PLC and its 14,691 individual shareholders, I would like to issue a formal apology to the Portman Group for not giving a shit about today’s ruling. Indeed, we are sorry for never giving a shit about anything the Portman Group has to say, and treating all of its statements with callous indifference and nonchalance."
Now that’s the way to apologize.
Georgina Denny is provocation director at global brand design consultancy Elmwood.
This article first appeared on campaignlive.co.uk.