Audi loses the brand activist race

February 14, 2017 | Joyshree Reinelt

The year has hardly begun and we’ve already witnessed radical shifts throughout society – growing anti-establishment contingencies, women’s rights marches, and the Trump administration are some of the major talking points of 2017. Many have called this the ushering of a new era, one where institutions are met with anxiety rather than trust.

In such a climate, brands and businesses can play an important role through establishing a distinct  POV and by supporting actions which address critical societal issues of the day. Just look at the number of businesses getting involved in the debate of  Trump’s new policy on immigration. Brand involvement in such issues can sometimes go wrong. One such case is Audi USA, whose recent #DriveProgress commercial was met with much backlash online. The advert speaks of how Audi is committed to “equal pay for equal work”, ultimately showcasing where they stand with regards to the gender pay-gap dispute. A nobel, necessary cause that has been welcomed with notoriety when supported by other brands and business in the past. This commercial is different.

Audi’s #DriveProgress commercial was aimed at striking an emotional chord with many, creating a tension around the topic of gender equality. The use of the father’s narration and the close-angle shots of the daughter were an effort to create a sense of empathy between the viewer and the daughter (gender equality). However, the commercial was unsuccessful in creating this empathy as many male viewers regarded it as anti-male, feminist, and in poor taste to have a cliche girl-beat-boy storyline.

The ad has garnered over 12m YouTube views but with a very polarising 45% v 55% ratio of likes to dislikes, and very negative comments from disgruntled consumers who threatened to never buy an Audi again.

It would be real shame if Audi’s bumpy ride (pun intended) in supporting a crucial social cause puts off other brands from following suit. Because, with the reach and influence (and budgets!) that brands and businesses have, they have  the potential to be a great power for good in our world.

As we have seen with campaigns over the years from Dove (Real Beauty) to Always (Like A Girl) to Ben & Jerry’s (Save Our Swirled), get it right and you get real brand engagement from people moved by subjects that really matter to them and the world they live in.

What’s interesting in all the noise around Audi is that the company created another ad focused on gender equality in Spain last Christmas that generated significantly more positive feedback (94% likes vs 6% dislikes).

What lessons can we learn to help brands build the right kinds of social purpose campaigns?

Lesson 1: Build a strong link between your product or business and the social POV

Audi’s somewhat tenuous link between a go-kart race won by a girl vs the boys could have been so much stronger if they had talked about the shortage of female engineers in their industry. Here is a real issue that they have to resolve that is a manifestation of the social issue. In the Spanish Audi ad, the gender stereotypes that surround the traditionally male focused motor industry is highlighted through the way the choice of toys for boys and girls are expected to fit socially defined norms

Lesson 2: Your belief and POV needs to be clearly backed up by your ongoing actions

Although the company stated in the ad that “Audi of America is committed to equal pay for equal work”, the fact that this was already a legal requirement of all companies in the US and that only 2 of the 14 members of the Audi US Exec Board were women undermined their POV. This contradiction made it feel like an advertising idea as opposed to a core belief backed up by an ongoing commitment to actions to drive real impact to change the social issue. In today’s world people are quick to punish companies and institutions if their endeavours are seen as insincere actions aimed at garnering publicity. They want to see that credible, on the ground actions are being taken to tackle the prevailing issues of society today.

Lesson 3: Build from a point of credibility

When Coke first ran its ‘America The Beautiful’ ad during the Super Bowl in 2014, there was much debate about racial diversity in the US. Whilst some of the feedback was extremely negative, the significant majority was positive. However, Coke was building on its credibility in this space having preached that ‘there is more that unites us, than divides us’ for many years. That base credibility earns you the right to have a more strong and controversial POV.

Lesson 4: A shared fiction is more valuable than communicating facts

In response to many of the negative comments, the Audi US team responded with a number of facts and figures to back-up their case for the pay gap between men and women. These facts were obscured by a debate over how they could be interpreted in different ways. But the core of their POV is about a belief of what is fair. Here we are dealing with values, not rational numbers. A belief shared by a group of people is built from a human narrative that people can buy into. Beliefs are not rational arguments. They are intangible. The Spanish Audi spot has no facts – it simply has an inspiring story of a better alternative future that we can buy into.

Lesson 5: Whilst a social cause is usually serious, engagement can be more fun

Social change is a serious matter – but that does not mean that the execution always has to be overly serious. To drive social change, you need to inspire people to join your fight. A little bit of  fun and entertainment can make the cause seem more attractive to join. Whilst the Audi Spain ad inspires and energizes, the Audi US ad feels preachy and condescending.

Lesson 6: Choose your enemy carefully

A good POV will normally have opposing sides. That doesn’t mean that you need to totally alienate one of them. In their US ad, Audi clearly create a setup of ‘good’ (girl racer) and ‘bad’ (boy racers). The ad is therefore an implicit attack on men. Men clearly felt that given many of the comments written on the YouTube page. In reality, the enemy is the cultural norms and stereotypes. Again, the Spanish ad gets this right by explicitly highlighting that it is also boys who suffer as they too are restricted in what type of toys they can play with (no dolls allowed).

In summary, our message to brands and businesses is to embrace the opportunity to make a contribution to a better world. Society needs it. Despite Audi US experience people are increasingly looking to brands to step-up. There is a fine line between getting it right and getting it wrong. So take the time to think through the details and make that positive impact our world needs.


Posted By Joyshree Reinelt

Joyshree is a cultural decoder and brand purpose crafter by nature. Born and brought up in the international melting hub of Frankfurt she has always been exposed to different types of people. The diversity and richness of cultures have inspired her curiosity to deeper understand what makes people tick. She has learnt a lot by seamlessly being able to immerse across cultures. She holds a Master's degree in Psychology. After having worked in the therapeutic space she decided to help businesses and brands apply more human logic to business in order to grow with value propositions that are purposeful, meaningful and culturally connected. She has worked in more than 35 countries, lived in different regions of the world and is a founding partner of Innate Motion.

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