Q&A with Christian Ward, Stylus: when brands tackle taboo topics, the rewards can be great

Society is no longer keeping silent on typically taboo topics. For brands that are bold and brave enough to tap into conversations around body issues, immigration and family dynamics, the rewards can be many.


Stylus’ head of Media & Marketing, Christian Ward, explores not only how brands are normalising under-represented issues, but how they’re stepping in – and speaking up – where politicians have failed.

So Christian, what exactly constitutes a 'taboo' from a brand perspective?

Because of the internet and social media, which have given platforms to lots of discrete voices, the definition is shifting. As a result, there's been a paradigm shift in how confident some under-represented voices feel about speaking up and being taken seriously.

Most of the things that have been considered stigmas – mental health, sexual harassment, women's health and wellness issues, sex and sexuality, and race and immigration – are being challenged in most countries. This represents a real opportunity for brands to help reshape the narrative.


How can they begin doing this?

Take what are probably the two most important taboos from a brand perspective – race and women's oppression. It's important for brands to come down on one side of the argument.

Brands have traditionally shied away from race because they're aware of the backlash they'll get if they get it wrong. Getting it right internally is the first step – in any company you're at least going to have second- and third-generation immigrants, so it's a subject that brands can look at more sensitively.

I think the same applies to sexual harassment. A lot of companies need to have a hard look at their culture before they can address the problem with a clear conscience.

 What are the most striking examples of brands tackling taboos?

Feminine hygiene brand Bodyform recently became the first brand to ditch traditional blue demonstration liquid in favour of realistic blood in its advertising. I think it's astonishing that it took this long for a brand to not be euphemistic about menstruation.

What's also interesting is the breaking of familial taboos. Many families have dysfunctional relationships, which jars with advertising being a world of perfect families.

This is interesting because it taps into niche emotional routes to consumers that brands wouldn't normally take. It doesn't have to be John Lewis making you cry or Lynx making you feel sexy – there are other emotions, like 'I miss my family', 'I wish my parents were back together', or 'I haven't seen my son for a week'.

These have the potential to be engaged with by brands in a sensitive way, so it's a fascinating route for marketers to explore.


When is it appropriate for brands to tackle a taboo?

It's never a good idea to seek out an issue and attach yourself to it. Though some brands, like Bodyform, are obviously helping to move long-held conversations forwards.

This is part of their brand purpose and history, which I think is key – otherwise it looks like you're just trying to make yourself relevant, which consumers will see through.

 Which brands have got it wrong?

I’d point to the disastrous Pepsi ad starring Kendall Jenner. It was trying to talk about race and culture, but it didn’t go far enough. It didn’t take risks. If you’re going to tackle an issue like this, do it properly.


How can brands tackle taboos while keeping a commercial focus?

I don’t think there’s any point being a brand that’s really great at solving the world’s issues if they’re not selling their products at the same time. On the flip side, there’s no place for brands that are just about selling.

We’re entering a world where marketing and advertising aren’t cutting through in the traditional sense. So what are you going to do, as a brand, if you can’t stick a poster on the wall that says ‘Our products are great, buy them?

You’ve got to rely on word of mouth, which means your product has to be brilliant. What happens if your product isn’t brilliant, which most products aren’t? You’ve got to be relevant to the people you want to sell to.

The most effective ways of doing this are by creating content that’s as good as stuff on Netflix, Snapchat and Instagram; by solving a problem for customers, like Nike has done with its running app; or by trying to tackle taboo issues.


Read the full Tackling Taboos report on Stylus.com, including case studies, quotes from industry leaders and four key opportunities for brands.

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