Should brands stand for or against something?

It’s often said that, to cut through the clutter, brands need to develop and articulate a clearly differentiated point of view on the issues that matter to their customers. Many brands have found that, by taking a deliberately provocative, campaigning stance, they can generate a stronger reaction from their constituency. Sure, they’ll alienate some and potentially turn others into detractors by taking a polarising stand. But they’ll strike a chord with many others who go on to become much stronger, deeply loyal product advocates. They’ll be willing to give up a little bit of themselves and their social bandwidth to become part of the brand’s volunteer salesforce.

Just think of those brands that have built movements and not just campaigns. Brands that – in Simon Sinek’s brilliantly simple observation – start with why, have found their purpose and use that to make themselves stand apart.

Brands like Apple, championing elegant simplicity to make consumer tech both beautiful and our servant in making life easier.

Brands like Ben & Jerry’s for making the world’s best ice cream, served with an integral dollop of very practical social conscience.

Brands like the 2008 Obama campaign, Yes We Can, a paragon of positive action for positive change.

Brands like Audi for making progress through technology – Vorsprung durch Technik – really meaningful in the broader market, delivering Le Mans-winning innovation to the masses.

And Brands like Dove. Believe it or not, the Campaign for Real Beauty is already a tweenager. For more than a decade, Dove has been championing “real types not stereotypes” of the beauty industry, starting millions of conversations with girls and women about what real beauty means and how to confront and resist the pressures to conform.

It didn’t take long for Dove to channel the spirit of a brilliant, positive campaign and develop products and ranges that exemplify the campaigning stance it had embraced. In taking on the lucrative and – until then ignored – post-menopausal market, Dove championed what it means to be an older woman with its speciality Pro Age range. The narrative of the sub-brand was written clearly into the product offering and even its name. Dove was in favour of its constituency, not apologising for it or them or their stage of life.

What made me reflect on these marketing smarts was the appearance in this weekend’s colour supplements of new creative for arch rival Nivea’s Anti Age product range. Now the range name and brand communications idea for Nivea is clear – and a clear polar opposite to Dove’s proposition. Clear differentiation, sure. And falling into the very trap that Unilever’s brand team must have set for Beiersdorf, but never in their wildest dreams believed they’d actually fall into. By adopting a narrative that says “we can help you turn back the clock and reverse the ageing process”, Nivea isn’t championing its post-menopausal customer base and their needs. The story it shouts out is: “no-one finds an older woman sexy, so let’s deploy all the old patriarchal clichés and try and defy the inevitable”.

This negative and stereotypical campaign, tone and approach might win marketing plaudits. It might. But I can’t believe it’ll find an army of brand advocates prepared to become part of the extended brand marketing team like Dove’s did. Nor do I imagine it’ll have the electro-shock impact the Campaign for Real Beauty had on internal morale and motivation. I cannot imagine a queue outside the Anti Age brand director’s door of bright young Beiersdorf marketers, champing at the bit to be on the team.

By starting with why, by finding and expressing a positive purpose that others could rally round, Dove started a social conversation that has been translated into commercial success; they’ve done that brilliant Unilever thing of doing well by doing good. Nivea, by contrast, has seen its competitor do something successful and tried to ape it by doing the opposite. The approach – and advertising including excessive airbrushing – has got them into trouble in the recent and more distant past (see Banned, Nivea ad that made model of 62 look younger). It’s so far from the public, political and media Zeitgeist you could be mistaken for thinking it was a joke.

Long live the narrative of Pro Age and its philosophy that beauty has no age limit. And may Anti Age be just a pimple on the cheek of marketing history.