WGSN Salon Series: Are Brands the New Revolutionaries?

For our third community panel event, our WGSN NY content team organised an impressive roster of experts to partake in a fireside chat moderated by WGSN’s very own Sarah Owen and Richie Grantham, senior editor and head of brand propositions respectively.

With so much discussion surrounding the current state of worldly affairs (think Britain’s Brexit, the surprising results of the U.S election, the President-elect’s relationship to the press and his controversial jargon used across social media, climate change and other social issues like gender equality and minority rights), brands are faced with a tough choice: do they take a stance and if so, what are the risks and rewards involved?

It was a packed house and our expert group of panelists included: Drew Elliott (Chief Creative Officer at Paper Magazine- famous for Kim Kardashian’s Breaking the Internet campaign), Felix Palau (VP of Marketing at Tecate), Nick Law (Global Chief Creative Officer at R/GA) and Ryan McHardy (SVP, Head of Business Innovation & Digital Transformation at Publicis).

With the topic at hand, it was no surprise that a healthy dose of conflicting opinions erupted, leading the audience to digest both sides of the argument.


For one hour, the room sipped on wine while watching the conversation unfold. A tight selection of key spots were shown like Ad Council’s ‘Love Has No Labels‘ and Tecate’s ‘#TecateBeerWall,’ campaigns, which illustrated two organisations that have used their platforms to tell a story that reflects what’s actually happening in society today, from their brand’s unique perspective.

The key takeaway? Brands need to engage in projects that align with their ethos, or risk loosing credibility and authenticity once and for all. In doing so however, brands must be weary of alienating or offending pre-existing and future audiences with a spot that steers too much to one side. With the risk of it all, perhaps the winning formula can be found someplace in the middle. By creating messages that simply stir up dialogue on a particular issue without emerging with outright support for it, there is vast potential to tap into the emotions of an audience. At the end of the day, brands are responsible for telling stories and by injecting humour, shock or simply context into their messages which reflect current events and pop culture, and those committed to doing it with truth and passion, will rarely get it wrong.


Below are key thoughts from each panelist:


Drew Elliot

“At Paper, one of the things that we did following the Orlando shooting, we as an editorial team came together and said we really need to be able to put information out there that is really, truly important. We know that those things aren’t going to drive, in some cases, huge numbers of traffic and we’re not going to be able to put ads on a lot of these things because a lot of them are things that brands don’t want to be associated with. But for our brand, that’s the right thing to do. What’s great for our brand, may not necessarily be great for other people. We have to make people aware to care and so if brands can do that, I say kudos to them. When you do a campaign or you do something that is supposed to be meaningful and political, you too have to back it up organisationally and it has to be a part of the ecosystem of your brand, and not just an ad. That’s where oftentimes brands take the wrong turn- if it’s opportunistic and a gimmick, it actually is a disservice to people. I think it’s really important for brands to be a part of the right conversations that are a part of their brand DNA.


Felix Palau 

“As a marketer, I think our job is to build an iconic, great brand. I think great brands are those brands that have the power to influence any which way. Technology and social media has changed everything- the question is: how do you influence? How do you make sure that you are part of the conversation? We’re not in change, consumers are in charge. They think and choose how, when and where they interact with any other brand. So, we saw the opportunity (for their #TecateBeerWall spot) to insert Tecate in this conversation and trigger this conversation, taking a twist on a topic that is a difficult subject for many. But for Tecate, it was the right time because we as a Mexican brand, we thought we not only had the opportunity, but the obligation to insert ourselves. In this political process, we were always debating how can we make something that’s bold. How can we put Tecate on the radar of many? It was organic because we are a Mexican beer and this topic is very close to us so we saw this idea, we fine-tuned it and we made sure it was totally politically agnostic. The only ambition was to reach as many consumers as possible and to trigger this conversation. I think it’s either pop culture or political aspects that can give you the opportunity to make something that can make the brand a protagonist and trigger conversations.”


Nick Law

Big brands have broad constituents and they want to be sensitive, all of them, and I understand that. I think at some point, values become universal. Why should brands be tentative when the president we are about to get is actually the opposite?”

“I actually like that I have access to a lot of different ways of thinking in a way that I didn’t 20 years ago because of social media and all sort of electronic media. I think that’s a good thing. I can choose to believe in a few things and ignore the rest of it, it’s all there. There has always been truth amongst the post truth- there are plenty of people who think really thoughtfully about what’s going on. I’m not sure I buy into the hysteria that all of a sudden, this year, we’re all in a bubble and we’re all listening to stuff that is false because I think there has been a very rich history of that in civilisation and let’s not pretend that this is the first time it has happened.”


Ryan MCHardy

“We are all very emotional being so we see a funny spot like Tecate, or an emotional spot like the Ad Council, that has a power because of the emotional zeitgeist that it can create. The way that kind of makes us feel or takes us to a thought or an action or an idea of something that we then hope both brands as actors and individuals as actors, will use that emotion as some sort of catalyst in their lives. I would never say it is just action because communication can be so powerful. That is how the president elect won. That use of emotion has always been critical to sell our products. Hopefully we enter an era where we more and more use that emotion to take a point of view and lead the type of progress in society that we’d like to see. I think those brands will last and stick around longer.”

“Size can also be a huge asset for a company when they take a position on something. Business models are going to need to change fundamentally to begin to support the types of societal change and progress that is necessary because there is profit motive there and it doesn’t necessarily have to be in a position where it’s hurting someone. There is a lot of opportunity for big scale brands that actually have the resources and the remit and the scope to step in and say- we are going to slowly change.  You don’t have to be a category leader to show category leadership.”



Like this? Let us know what you think. Can brands be the new revolutionaries, and what are the key brands that you align with thanks to their value system? Leave us some comments below.


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