How can brands talk about a trending social issue without being patronising?

by Feb 21, 2019Semiotics

The same question lands on my desk all the time. ‘How do we talk about this trending social issue without being patronising?’

The answer is going to come down to pronouns, which can bring with them a shift of perspective. Brands that are having a problem reaching consumers or having their CSR campaigns come across in the right way usually think of consumers as ‘they’ when they should be thinking ‘we’.

Examples that I’ve worked on in recent months:

  • Women. A fintech brand appreciates that it doesn’t know how to talk to women, but doesn’t know how to fix the problem. The marketers and brand owners discuss this difficult segment of consumers. ‘What do THEY want?’ There are hardly any women employed at the company and none in senior positions.
  • LGBTQ+. A sports brand wants to show support for LGBTQ+ because it is a contemporary issue that is too hot to ignore. It fears being inauthentic and doesn’t know how to proceed. It perceives customers with an interest in LGBTQ+ as a segment that is hard to understand and gauge correctly. THEY are hard to understand.
  • Magic. A beauty brand becomes aware of The Witches of Instagram and sees that magical and occult ideas are marketable. The brand owner secretly thinks that believing in magic is silly but sees that consumers are embracing magical thinking, so therefore THEY must be interested in buying cosmetics that are packaged as a Witch Kit. Then it experiences backlash because THEY are unpredictable and mysteriously unreasonable. The product is pulled.

When brands and their marketers think of consumers as THEY, hazards lie ahead. The hazard of being patronising or seeming exploitative or using tired stereotypes based on mistaken assumptions. It ends up with ads that show hapless female models pretending not to understand their computers and bank services because THEY are under-represented in tech and finance, therefore THEY must find it difficult.

Semiotics and discourse analysis are great ways to get past the THEY and get to the WE. While the classic market research tools which come out of individual psychology regard people from the outside, perpetually trying to unlock the secret attitudes, needs and motivations that are hidden within their heads, methods such as semiotics and DA are ways to learn about culture from the inside. There are no hidden psychological mechanisms that are unavailable to marketers. Just go to the places where your consumers congregate and find out how those consumers communicate with each other when they are not answering survey questionnaires for people who they know are not like themselves.

Women and Fintech. If you think of women as THEY, you may easily fall into the trap of thinking that THEY are all at home, caring for children and struggling to manage their grocery budgets when in fact THEY are innovating in finance and technology. Go to the places where women gather to talk about these issues to each other, not to a market researcher. Listen. Look at the semiotic signs which are in use. When women talk to women, we are clear about what we are trying to do, what we need, where we see problems with existing products. We need finance products that are simple to understand, not because we are stupid but because unnecessary complexity and men selling each other products that they don’t understand caused a financial crisis. We are happy when tech products help us be more available but we are quick to recognise when those same products have us under surveillance, because women disproportionately know what it is like to be stalked.

LGBTQ+. Time immersing yourself in LGBTQ+ discourse is well spent because it will cause you to realise that inclusivity is the name of the game. That doesn’t just mean that non-conforming people want to be included in their fair share of equal rights and to benefit from legislation against discrimination. It is also inclusive in the sense that it is open to everyone. If you have an inkling that there might not be a 100% overlap between you and Barbie or GI Joe then congratulations, you’re a non-conformist. You might be non-binary, you might be genderfluid, you’re part of the club. And it’s quite an important club because there are some in-group, out-group dynamics going on. At a time when it’s never been easier to include oneself in a trendsetting minority, suspicions may be raised if you choose not to be included. What this means for the sports brand: rather than importing a LGBTQ celebrity and using them as a token spokesmodel, appreciate the LGBTQ diversity that already exists in your workforce. Show the public how you are supporting that diversity and making an effort to be a great place to work for everyone.

Magic. Delving deeply into magical thinking will reveal that consumers are not so idiotic that all THEY want is lipstick and socks emblazoned with cartoon witches and black cats. The Witches of Instagram may be a visible and fairly free-spending segment but the fact is that magical thinking is so widespread as to be normal behaviour. When we observe that magic is somewhat of a trend in contemporary Britain, we’re not just talking about a segment of people who cast spells but about huge numbers of people who talk to their cars to help get them started, talk to Siri and Alexa as though they were part of the family, own treasured items of memorabilia, wear lucky pants on a night out, curate visualisation boards that depict the life goals they are striving for and post Richard Branson memes on LinkedIn. Richard Branson memes are like holy relics. Saint Richard’s smiling face and a pithy quote about leadership in place of a Bible verse are magical tokens which the user hopes will attract some of Branson’s qualities to themselves.

While novelty socks fail to ignite consumers’ passion, brands such as Amazon, Airbnb, Teleflora, Coca Cola, De Beers, L’Oreal and many more use magical thinking in a non-patronising way by making marketing messages that communicate ‘WE are all users of magic.’

WE, not THEY.

I supply brand strategy and consumer insight to marketers and market researchers. All of the above are real projects that I’ve worked on recent months. I’m chairing the session ‘Chaos Magic’ at Impact, the annual conference of the Market Research Society, London, March 13. Learn how some very successful brands embrace and encourage magical thinking, making the most of an upsurge of magic in the UK.

Photo in the header by Matt Lee on Unsplash


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