In the ever-evolving world of marketing, brands are always competing for eyeballs. The modern attention economy dictates that you’re either being noticed or being forgotten. There’s no in-between.
This never-ending battle is forcing businesses to always look for new ways of standing out. As a result, marketing budgets are increasing and uncharted territories are constantly being explored. However, casting all of your fishnets on the outside while everyone else is doing the same presents a problem.
Sure, there’s plenty of fish in the sea, but there’s no shortage of fishing vessels, either. So many brands decided to instead look inward for solutions. This marketing method goes by many names, but personally, I like to call it “deconstructive marketing”.
What is deconstructive marketing?
If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Deconstructive marketing takes this idea and hurls it out the window. Everything is inherently broken when viewed through the lens of deconstructive marketing.
At its core, the idea is based on the intellectual underpinnings of philosopher Jacques Derrida. Those familiar with Derrida’s work are probably shuddering in horror right now.
Entire PhD dissertations have been written on the topic of deconstruction. But since this is not a philosophy blog, I won’t get into much detail here. The important part is understanding the basic concept and how it relates to marketing.
Deconstruction is a philosophical and literary method that challenges fixed meanings and binary oppositions in texts. It aims to critique the intricate web of language and ideas by revealing underlying contradictions and alternative interpretations.
As such, deconstructive marketing is a departure from conventional marketing strategies. It delves into the essence of language, discourse, and visual symbolism used in marketing campaigns. It challenges the very foundations of brands, such as their target audience or their positioning in the market.
For example, a brand that traditionally targets men may try to become more appealing to women. A brand that generally works with older adults may try to attract younger audiences. It’s a high-risk, high-reward strategy.
Many brands have engaged in this type of marketing in recent years. The tides of social change forced them to deconstruct their core values and messaging lest they be sunk by the shifting currents.
There are some for which this deconstruction paid off. They gained market share and managed to increase their revenues. Others sunk their own brands in fear of the rising social tide.
Deconstructive marketing: winners and losers
If there are winners and losers when it comes to deconstructive marketing, then there must underlying causes we can identify. There are lessons we can learn from those who have lost millions (or even billions) showing us the wrong way to go about it.
After all, a basic tenet of deconstruction is the ability to put things back together again. If you can’t, then what you did was destruction, not deconstruction. So let’s examine some examples.
Note: Some of these examples are ancient history by Internet standards, yet they still linger in people’s memory. Despite their age, they still contain good lessons for the insightful observer.
Side note: My opinions are my own and for educational purposes only.
Gillette’s The Best Men Can Be campaign attempts to deconstruct masculinity
At the beginning of 2019, the razor brand Gillette (owned by the consumer goods mega-giant P&G) dropped an ad campaign with the goal of deconstructing masculinity and its relation to femininity.
The campaign was highly controversial. Released on the heels of the “MeToo” movement, it shone the spotlight on negative male behaviors and asked the question, “Is this the best a man can get?”
Gillette’s goal was to spark a conversation around masculinity, which they ultimately managed to achieve. The campaign was focused on an ad with more than 38 million views on YouTube. The like-to-dislike ratio on the ad is 2-1 in favor of dislikes (1.7M dislikes compared to 833K likes as of the writing of this article).
Since there was a massive backlash against the ad, the majority of commenters were grilling the company. As a result, comments were shut off. This didn’t stop people from going to other ads and videos on Gillette’s YouTube channel and mocking the company.
People are still making fun of the ad, 4 years later. Comments like, “We still remember”, “Never forget”, and “Is Gillette still in business,” are still commonplace. If the video has comments on, that is. Many videos have their comments off.
Suffice it to say, legions of Gillette customers took to social media to express their displeasure with the ad. Like I said, deconstructive marketing is a high-risk, high-reward method. So did all this negative publicity show up in Gillette’s financials?
Gillette’s brand value has been dropping since 2021 according to Statista. Considering the campaign was launched in 2019, it would be a stretch to assume a direct correlation. Brand value is incredibly complicated and affected by a myriad of factors. Whether this particular campaign is a serious enough factor to be mentioned is anyone’s guess.
When it comes to market share, Gillette has been on a downward trajectory since 2010 (from 70% market share in 2010 to below 50% in 2017). Analysts explain this tendency with changing grooming habits (men shaving less), as well as lower-cost alternatives (like Dollar Shave Club) entering the market.
Perhaps it was this downward spiral that caused Gillette to try something new and radically different. Deconstructive efforts do happen when things are going well, but they’re far more likely to be borne out of fear for the bottom line.
According to this detailed analysis, the ad campaign has cost Gillette at least $350 million in losses. The parent company, P&G, also took an $8 billion writedown in July of 2019, citing shifting cultural and market trends.
What does this all mean at the end of the day? What were the results of Gillette’s attempt to deconstruct masculinity (and, consequently, their main target audience)? Even if the ad hasn’t hurt the company, it certainly hasn’t helped. The attempt to attract a new audience doesn’t seem to have panned out.
Many of the ad’s target consumers criticized the brand for its disingenuous messaging. Especially considering the fact that at the time of the ad, Gillette was still charging women “a pink tax”, or higher prices for essentially the same product.
On the other hand, Gillette seems to have done a bang-up job alienating a portion of their core audience. The brand is still in relatively good standing and the biggest player in the personal grooming market, but its deconstruction efforts are more likely to have hurt than helped the brand.
However, being a house of brands, parent company P&G can afford it. That’s the benefit of having multiple revenue streams – even if one of them doesn’t quite pan out, you can make up for it from the others.
Was the attempt at deconstructing masculinity successful? No. While it hurt neither Gillette nor P&G as much as critics would like, it failed to attract the new audience the company was hoping for and it managed to alienate a part of their core audience.
Bud Light wants to shed its “fratty image”
Deconstructive marketing can sometimes backfire in a spectacular way. For example, it caused the once most popular beer in the US market to drop to the 15th place and be sold cheaper than water.
The reason? A massive boycott of the brand over a partnership with an LGBTQ+ influencer. At least that’s what the media claims, but that’s not the whole story.
In a clip that has since gone viral, Alissa Heinerscheid, VP of marketing for the brand who took over in June 2022, explains the reasoning behind the campaign. That clip was a much bigger factor in the boycott than most media outlets are willing to admit.
“I had a really clear job to do when I took over Bud Light,” Heinerscheid says. “This brand is in decline. It’s been in decline for a really long time and if we do not attract young drinkers to come and drink this brand, there will be no future for Bud Light.”
Like I said, deconstructive efforts rarely take place when things are going well. It’s when a company starts to decline that they take a look inward and look for ways to deconstruct the brand and change things around.
Heinerscheid’s idea was to evolve and elevate the brand, which in her own words, “means inclusivity. It means shifting the tone. It means having a campaign that’s truly inclusive and feels lighter and brighter, and different, and appeals to women and to men. And representation is at the heart of evolution.”
“We had this hangover,” the VP continues. “I mean, Bud Light had been kind of a brand of fratty, kind of out-of-touch humor and it was really important that we had another approach.”
This final quote describes deconstructive marketing to a T. The marketing team took apart the brand and started looking for a new audience, a new tone, and a new approach to market their beer.
However, the efforts really didn’t pan out. As it turns out, insulting your target audience isn’t the best way to find a new one. Once customers found out about how the brand sees them, they decided to drop Bud Light. As of the end of July 2023, the brand’s sales were in a free fall for 17 weeks straight, a 29% drop year-on-year.
To make matters worse, Bud Light’s leadership didn’t stand with the influencer when the backlash began, pissing off their new target audience, as well.
All this resulted in parent company AB InBev’s drop in market value by more than $20 billion, damage to their flagship brand in the US, and an increased market share for their competitors.
Considering the fact that AB has over 400 beer brands under its house of brands roof, the company will be just fine. They’ll most likely recover from this, even if it takes them a few more months.
Even so, increasing your competitors’ market share is never a good thing, especially for products as non-essential as beer. It takes between a month and three months to form a new habit, which means customers who have not had a Bud Light for more than three months are likely to never return.
When it’s all said and done, the only saving grace in this entire situation is that AB InBev is a huge company and has plenty of other beers to sell. If this weren’t the case, Bud Light would be in big trouble. This attempt at deconstruction turned out more destructive than intended.
Burger King’s “Moldy Whopper” campaign turns heads (and stomachs)
We’re used to seeing fast food advertising feature amazing, overproduced photos. They’re not and they cannot be real and we all know that. But this inconvenient fact has never stopped companies from shoving those perfect images in our faces. Until now.
In 2020, Burger King decided to break the mold (pun, obviously, intended). Using their “Moldy Whopper” campaign, they announced to the world they’re removing tonnes of artificial preservatives from their products worldwide.
Instead of featuring the traditional, almost plastic-like image of a perfect burger, they showed a 34-day time-lapse video of one of their whopper. In the span of a month, the burger went from perfectly edible to covered in so much mold, that you can barely recognize what it used to be.
This is a complete deconstruction of the way fast-food companies sell their food. Instead of fluffing up their product, Burger King used mold to sell it.
By showing the burger’s decay, Burger King aimed to communicate transparency and authenticity. The campaign addressed consumer skepticism about fast food and the potential consequences of using artificial preservatives. The underlying message was that the food you see is the food you get, without hidden additives.
Naturally, this amount of mold means the product is made with “real” ingredients, shattering the predominant idea that you can leave your burger in the fridge for a month and still eat it afterward.
The campaign also tapped into growing concerns about food quality and environmental impact. By highlighting the absence of artificial preservatives, Burger King aimed to align with consumers who prioritize healthier and more environmentally friendly options.
“Moldy Whopper” was definitely a risky move. It went 180 degrees from all competitors but it paid off in the end. After the campaign was released, sales increased by 14%. The campaign also brought $40 million in earned media value and increased positive brand sentiments by 88%.
“Beautiful mold”, the media called it. While I don’t think it’s beautiful, nor appetizing, the results speak for themselves. Most people who saw the ad reacted positively to it and this was reflected in Burger King’s bottom line.
This campaign exemplifies the enormous potential of deconstructive marketing to challenge the norm and stir conversations about a brand.
Dove deconstructs narrow beauty standards
In 2004, Dove made waves with their “Real Beauty” campaign. In a world used to selling the image of perfection, Dove decided to deconstruct societal views on beauty and feature real, everyday women in their advertising.
When billboards of ordinary women began to pop up all over the place, people noticed immediately. The campaign was so different from what they were used to seeing that there was no way it would go unnoticed.
In the realm of brand loyalty, emotions wield remarkable influence. Brands that evoke feelings often secure enduring customer relationships. This is exactly what Dove did with this campaign. Instead of inducing more insecurity in girls and women, the company celebrated them.
Statistics from the National Organization for Women indicate that a substantial portion of young women struggle with body dissatisfaction due to media influences. Dove did a total 180 on this trend.
Unlike most media representations, Dove’s campaign didn’t exacerbate self-doubt or impose unrealizable ideals. Instead, it advocated empathy and self-acceptance, which strongly resonated with women.
This showed up in the company’s bottom line. The revenue increased by about 10% year-on-year. According to some estimates, the campaign generated 30 times its initial ad spend in media attention.
Such a level of success doesn’t happen overnight, though. Before they released the “Real Beauty” campaign, Dove did plenty of research for years and based advertising decisions on their findings. This goes to show the power of psychology and behavioral science in the marketing context.
But the lesson isn’t over. Since the campaign is still ongoing nearly 20 years later, it can serve as a case study for the shifting purchasing habits and societal perceptions over the span of two decades.
While the initial campaign was a masterclass in deconstructive marketing, later attempts weren’t as successful. For example, in 2017 Dove released limited edition bottles for their products. The idea was the bottles were supposed to represent different types.
However, this was not the revolutionary move the company thought it would be. Many customers of the brand were not happy with the move. Many advertising professionals who had praised the brand for years – even less so.
The bottle introduced unneeded anxiety around the whole thing. Dove, the brand that had successfully deconstructed beauty standards and empathized with its customers a decade ago, was now coming off as patronizing. To make matters worse, some bottles were more comfortable to use than others, suggesting there is such a thing as a “correct” shape.
In truth, the media landscape has changed since the “Real Beauty” campaign first graced the air in 2004. The ideas around body positivity have become more or less the status quo in recent years. While Dove’s campaign was revolutionary at the time, it’s now a part of the white noise or worse – poorly received.
And to put the final nail in the coffin – Dove released an ad that carried racist overtones. In the words of one Harvey Dent: “You either die a hero… Or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.“
Why does deconstructive marketing work for some and not others?
Essentially, the success of deconstructive marketing hinges on how well it resonates with the intended audience and fits within the brand’s values.
Bud Light and Gillette serve as perfect examples that trying to gain a new audience by insulting your current one doesn’t work well. Especially if the efforts come off as disingenuous. Both brands managed to alienate everybody, which showed up in their financial reports.
The good news is that both brands are a part of bigger international companies so their losses don’t affect them as much. If those businesses had to stand on their own, they’d face serious financial difficulties.
On the other hand, Dove and Burger King’s messaging resonated with their intended audience and both companies managed to gain new ground. While both campaigns were a far cry from what consumers were traditionally used to at the time (or perhaps because of it), they were successful in their own right.
Granted, Dove dropped the ball later on. But they kept an excellent track record for over a decade before they began to squander all the goodwill they’d generated over the years. Still, how many campaigns can claim they were successful for over a decade and helped shape the advertising landscape?
There’s nothing wrong with trying something new. Deconstructive marketing clearly can work (and has worked for many brands in the past), but it requires finesse and insight to execute properly. Doing proper research before attempting anything can certainly mitigate some of the risks inherent in deconstructing your own brand.
Authenticity seems to be another important factor to consider. As consumers seek authentic connections with brands, this approach can create narratives that resonate profoundly. By crafting campaigns that challenge norms and provoke contemplation, marketers can cultivate lasting brand-consumer relationships.
However, amid its potential, deconstructive marketing confronts challenges and ethical dilemmas. Balancing thought provocation with sensitivity and avoiding misinterpretation of social issues demands careful execution. Ethical marketing practices require vigilance in navigating these complexities to ensure brand integrity and responsible communication.
Deconstructive marketing stands as a compelling avenue for redefining marketing norms and forging meaningful connections with consumers. From Dove’s empowerment-driven campaign to Burger King’s unconventional strategy, deconstructive marketing redefines marketing narratives.
When this approach works, it works quite nicely. However, it can also be a double-edged sword. If wielded carelessly, deconstructive marketing can cause serious (sometimes irreparable) damage to a brand. Damage you can’t afford if you’re running a small business. There are many considerations to make before even attempting this balancing act.
Considering the fact it happens more and more lately, deconstructive marketing reimagines the marketer-consumer relationship, reflecting the evolving spirit of the modern age.
Till next time.