Eve’s CMO on walking the line between controversy and offence

Marketers need to be able to read the cultural mood and fully understand their brand tone of voice if they want to tread the fine line between sparking conversation and causing offence, says Cheryl Calverley.

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Understanding your brand tone of voice and being able to read the cultural mood is crucial if marketers want to tread the fine line between sparking controversy for the right reasons and just being offensive, according to Cheryl Calverley, CMO of sleep lifestyle brand Eve Sleep.

Speaking yesterday (18 March) at Advertising Week Europe 2019, she pointed to the dramatically different approaches adopted by Nike with its ‘Dream Crazy’ campaign, featuring former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, and Gillette’s widely criticised #MeToo-focused ad playing on the concept of the ‘Best a Man Can Get’.

Calverley used an example from her own marketing career to highlight the fine line between gaining cut through and causing offence, referencing her time at Unilever working as marketing manager for Marmite.

At the time the team were working on a campaign called ‘Marm-Art’ to publicise the launch of its squeezy Marmite, which was anchored on the idea of drawing images of things people love or hate in Marmite.

Nike knew that [Dream Crazy] was controversial not offensive, it would appear that Gillette didn’t necessarily know that.

Describing herself as a “pretty ballsy” young marketer, Calverley was keen to create something that was controversial and people would talk about, befitting Marmite’s ‘Love it or Hate it’ positioning. However when DDB, the agency working on the brief, presented a set of drawings showing a hanging, a gun and a portrait of Princess Diana – all drawn in Marmite – she knew a line had been crossed.

“I went ‘woah, hang on a minute. I said controversial; that’s offensive, not controversial’. I ended up in a stand-up row with Jeremy Craigen the ECD, which went to my boss who came down very kindly on my side. He said; ‘Where’s your evidence that this is offensive and not controversial?’,” Calverley recalled.

“There inherently can’t be evidence that is offensive, not controversial. It is the point of a marketer to understand their audience, consumers and brand. Nike knew that [Dream Crazy] was controversial not offensive, it would appear that Gillette didn’t necessarily know that.”

Calverley argues that while Nike undoubtedly stirred up more dissenting voices than ever in its history with the Dream Crazy campaign, it did it for the right reasons and the message was clearly in line with the thoughts of its core audience. But while she admires the bravery of the Nike campaign, she was offended by the “tone deaf” Gillette advert.

“This is Gillette who has spent 40 to 50 years depicting a clean shaven, white male in the mirror as the ‘Best a Man Can Get’ and now suddenly we’re all this [tarring all men with the same brush]?” she questioned.

“If they had spent five years fighting for better expressions of men, supporting male confidence, supporting male suicide, getting things right and progressively changing their attitudes to masculinity – and by the way they wouldn’t have done it like this if they had – it would have been different. They’ve just come out and it looks like absolute bandwagon jumping and it’s terrible creative.”

READ MORE: Why Eve’s CMO made the move from big corporate to the startup world

Fighting for change

When asked to think about a campaign that offered real depth of purpose, Calverley highlighted the Blood Normal campaign by Bodyform (known as Libresse in Europe), which for the first time showed sanitary products containing a red substance, rather than a blue gel, in a bid to normalise the experience of periods.

READ MORE: How Bodyform took the ‘toxic shame’ out of periods

It took the female marketer leading on the campaign four years to get it signed off, after facing persistent opposition from the board, Calverley explained. However, the Blood Normal campaign was already winning fans within the marketing community long before it won over the board, with Mars’s global corporate brand and purpose director, Michele Oliver offering her support for the movement.

Oliver happened to arrive at the same advertising agency just after the Libresse board had – yet again – rejected the Blood Normal campaign.

“Mich was talking to the ad guy and he was telling her and she said, ‘hang on’ and filmed a video to this marketing manager at Libresse, no contact at all, and she sent her a video saying, ‘you’re doing the right thing, you’re a marketer and you’re doing the right thing for women and the right thing for your brand. Keep going’,” Calverley recalled.

Upon hearing this story she was convinced of the need for marketers to reach out across society and communities, and appreciate that doing something different is hard, but you must keep trying.

Reflecting on the changing demands of society, Calverley is also clear that marketers need to think about the language they use and how they frame the conversation in order to evolve in step with modern culture.

She explained that early on in her career she reclaimed a lot of male language, describing herself as a “deliberately quite ballsy female”. However, Calverley says she started thinking about the language she uses in more depth after a session at Marketing Week Live (6 March), when the she was asked by the crowd what it takes to develop great creative.

“My peers had said properly grown up things about consumer insight and good strategy, and I said to the room and ‘it takes a massive pair of balls’ and the room was quiet. I’ve said that before to rooms and people have laughed because I mean it takes a set of balls, as in I would reclaim the word ‘balls’. I had a real moment,” Calverley explained.

“The room was looking at me saying, “are you saying you have to be a man, are you saying you have to be alpha?’ I’m saying none of that, I reclaimed the word balls years ago. It’s about confidence and the shorthand to confidence is balls, but I think in the modern world it isn’t and I’ve found that the language I reclaimed is no longer the right language. I think these things come over and over at us and as we age I’m conscious of it.”

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