Brand-ish Opinion

Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield were hippies and long-time friends when they established Ben & Jerry’s Homemade. True to the counterculture to which they belonged in 1978, their brand continues to be driven by a well-informed social and ecological conscience.

Some months ago, Ben & Jerry’s released an antinuclear ice cream. It’s fun novelty for some, a responsible and serious message for others. The ice cream sold out in days. Another new brand is an expression of this corporate responsibility in action. “Help Lick Global Warming With Ben & Jerry’s New Flavor” is the invitation issued alongside the flavor known as Fossil Fuel. The “sweet cream ice cream with a yummy chocolate fudge swirl and handfuls of chocolate cookie pieces” comes complete “with four species of chocolatey dinosaurs to unearth.” Buying the flavor supports Ben & Jerry’s global “Lick Global Warming” campaign, which raises awareness and money for climate change research.

The Ben & Jerry’s brand is based on the founders’ opinions about business, society, the environment, and the way in which all three benefit each other. Although the brand changed hands and is now part of Unilever, Cohen and Greenfield’s forthrightness and social mission remain driving forces.

Richard Branson painted “No Way BA” on his entire fleet of aircraft when he characteristically displayed animosity toward his formidable adversary, British Airways. This was Branson’s answer to subterfuge, BA having been caught making free with a Virgin database by mailing false messages to Virgin customers to secure their business.

Then there’s the Australian clothing brand, Mambo. The Mambo guys have always been upfront, and, after years of successful trading, they’re still going strong with distinctively robust design and fashionable T-shirts that employ artwork to make political statements. Take a look at Mambo’s witty “ex-website,” which, quoting the famous Monty Python “Dead Parrot” sketch, announces the site’s death and imminent resurrection as a new and improved “Happiness: Only a Stone’s Throw Away” according to one of the five rotating designs that tied to the obituary. The statement is accompanied by five figures in anti-riot gear who bear shields and brandish batons.

Can this brash, opinionated branding approach be a dangerous game as well as a courageous branding tactic or socially responsible corporate style?

United Colors of Benetton certainly learned its lesson when its billboards across the world featured AIDS victims. Many thought the company had gone too far in the name of raising awareness of a global issue, a mission the company has pursued on roughly an annual basis since 1989. Its famous Priest and Nun image sparked the Vatican’s ire in 1991. It developed its 2003 Food For Life global campaign in partnership with the United Nations’ World Food Program. “Creating added value for the brand” is the declared aim of the company’s corporate communications.

And it works. Benetton’s sales increased. This despite the fact Benetton’s advertising budget is less than 5 percent of The Gap’s and other major clothing brands’. Benetton’s advertising is driven by enormous store presence and hard-hitting, politically oriented advertising.

Consumers are tiring of perfectly polished brands. Inoffensive brands. Brands without opinions or courage. Bland brands. That’s why brands must take a stand on issues, express their values and opinions, and demonstrate responsibility. Brands without well-defined opinions will find it increasingly difficult to gain traction in the marketplace. The challenge is to ensure opinions are in tune with the brand’s core values. That they’re authentic, not deceptive and not an opportunistic, superficial play for attention.

What’s your brand’s opinion on the environment? On humankind, health, religion, sexuality? What are your brand’s best intentions? If you want your brand to stand out from the competition (you do, don’t you?), you must keep pursuing your brand’s true difference. The difference that could well lie in your brand’s opinions. If the trend progresses as I believe it will, opinionated brands will overtake their competitors, and not necessarily because they attract adherents to their viewpoints. Many new fans will be offended by branding opinion, but offense won’t necessarily lead to a boycott.

What does your brand have to say? Whatever it is, mean it. Make sure the message is consistent, is communicated fearlessly and relevantly, and is on brand. A brand’s reward for expressing opinion is being heard — and discussed.

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