Lucy Gillman sat down with Ignite USA’s co-host Katie Martell to discuss the main topic of the event – brand. Lucy and Katie talk all things socio-political content from the dangers of so-called ‘brand authenticity’ to why you don’t need to produce your International Women’s Day piece.
The ‘unapologetic marketing truth teller’
Katie has marketed to marketers for her entire career. “I’ve had the pleasure of working with the most innovative martech and services around marketing for well over a decade. I came of age in marketing when HubSpot was just growing up and we were starting to learn about inbound marketing and marketing automation,” she adds. Katie has a wealth of experience on both vendor and practitioner sides, giving her unparalleled insight into how both the B2B industry and people have changed.
“These days I do a lot of hosting, emceeing and content creation,” she continues. “What fuels me is getting to work and meeting with marketers caught in the chaos of martech, in the ones making it come to life.” Having been named one of the most interesting people in B2B marketing, a top voice on LinkedIn three times and a 2021 Adweek Pride star, it’s safe to say Katie’s reach is extensive – “just don’t use the word influencer,” she quips.
Why brand? Why now?
As Katie outlines, over the past decade brand has come into renewed importance in B2B. “With B2B, every single buyer has now a consideration set that is busy, bloated and all the options look the same. You can’t tell me that you look at email marketing tools and don’t think: they’re all the same, what’s the difference?,” she continues. This has only increased during the pandemic. The move towards digital has “levelled the playing field” within B2B: everyone is competing on the same channels.
Enter social movements. From Pepsi to the wave of rainbow flags during Pride, over the past decade we’ve witnessed a “misunderstood, messy, awkward” union between marketing and social movements that has birthed “a strange new normal that doesn’t have a lot of rules.” With Gen Z set to become an employee/customer base, this shows no signs of slowing down. But why has this phenomenon come about?
“It’s all because of brand. If every option is the same price with the same features and the same functionality, of course you’re going to go with the one that’s ‘feminist’.” By leveraging social movements as a means of differentiation, organisations can attract both customers and employees by claiming to share their values.
Brand authenticity: “The most dangerous buzzword we’ve ever buzzed”?
As Katie maintains, this has led to a rise of inauthentic, performative allyship masked as ‘brand authenticity.’ “This creates the illusion that the world is more equitable than it really is. It hides the real places that these companies can have impact.”
Of course, brands can act in a moral and authentic fashion, and we’re definitely not saying that ‘brand authenticity’ is always an outward-facing, performative act. Quite the opposite. Brand authenticity is important, and some companies are a great example of this done well, but it has to be acknowledged that there are still plenty of inauthentic brands out there, regardless of what their messaging might say.
Katie’s advice is clear: put the surface-deep content to one side in favour of actionable content, such as a pay equity analysis. “There’s so many things under this umbrella of real allyship that companies can do. To do the performative stuff, the stuff that makes you look like an ally, makes you more complacent towards the work that needs to be done,” she continues.
Why you don’t need to produce social content
Before you produce a piece of socio-political content, do a litmus test: do you meet the very basic criteria of being an ally towards a social movement? Do you know what it means to be an ally to that group? If you don’t know how to answer that question, look internally and hold yourself accountable; “there’s a brand risk if you’re exposed or if your employees see that your post doesn’t match their lived experience. They’re going to leave and they’re not going to tell you why,” Katie cautions.
“I’d rather see nothing from a company that has work to do internally,” she continues. “It’s less about what you decide to include and more about should we? Are we the right spokespeople for a movement or are we barging into something we don’t understand? Are we the right amplifier for this?”
It’s not your story
That begs the question, where does the line between genuine and performative lie? As Katie outlines, take these elements into account:
- Who’s story is it? Have you centred the discussion around the marginalised people in the centre of the social movement, or around yourself as a company?
- Is it a case of opportunistic timing? “Did you ever have something to say, or do you feel you have to because everybody is?” she adds
- What’s the motivation? Is it about improving brand image? Nothing more than hopping on the latest bandwagon?
Remember, it’s not always about you. “A lot of times companies come in and think they have to be the experts who compile ten ways to be a better ally,” Katie continues. “Be experts in what you’re experts in and pass the mic to those who have a say in topics that you can never really understand.”
Don’t forget, doing the performative work is more dangerous than doing nothing.
Listen before you act
Katie’s advice is clear: “Every social movement has a set of demands, a list of things they’re fighting for. The first step in understanding what to do as a company is to stop and understand what the movement’s for in the first place.” Whether it be by listening to your employees, taking the time to self study or asking for external experts like Pride in Our Workplace, listen and learn before you act.
“Then it’s about how you can leverage your existing platform privilege and power to meet the needs of these movements,” Katie continues. “These movements are about changing the lived experiences of people and you, as a company, have an immense impact on those communities and a platform of influence to raise issues. That’s power.”
See designer ecommerce site Rent the Runway as a prime example. During June 2020, CEO Jenifer Hyman published “How We’re Taking Action”. Not only did Jenifer take responsibility on behalf of the fashion industry, she offered actionable change:
- $100,000 domination including NAACP and Black Visions Collective.
- Allocating $1 million for black designers, providing design resources, data, mentorship and financial support to create collections for Rent the Runway.
- Contributing to Aurora James’ #15PercentPledge where 15% of marketing, ambassadors, content and talent both in front of and behind the camera will be black talent.
The transparency and honesty in admitting that supporting that black talent is both in moral and financial best interest sets Rent the Runway’s statement apart. “Is it awkward to have some token based hiring? Yes. But it’s real, meaningful because it immediately impacts people of colour by creating economic opportunity. It’s a great model that’s full of action,” Katie adds.
“The way you can tell the difference between genuine statements is measurable, accountable goals. Period,” she continues. “I get it. I was in PR. I had a calendar of the minority of the month. But we’re asking ourselves the wrong question. It’s not about how we capitalise on the buzz, but how is this community asking us to show up?”
By issuing a statement, you’re making a promise. Can you live up to it?
Ignite USA: “When was the last time we had a beginning?”
It’s clear brand has undergone a metamorphosis over the last decade. And it shows no signs of slowing down. So, how can you navigate this change and come out on top? As Katie outlines, Ignite assembles the best practitioners, the best thinkers, the people who know what you’re going through to give new ideas, approaches and solutions. For Katie, “a great conference changes what you look at every day. It stays with you. Ignite is one of those.”
“The whole event is called Ignite – it’s going to spark new ideas, new connections,” she continues. “It’s time to start looking ahead at what tomorrow can bring. Events like Ignite are a great catalyst for the future.”