When Bonobos launched its new ad campaign last year, the response was . . . not entirely positive.
“This is against nature.”
“You guys aren’t trying to evolve the definition you’re trying to deform it.”
Those were just a few of the tamer YouTube comments for the spot “Evolve the Definition,” Bonobos’s effort in which it talked to a collection of dudes about the definition of masculine, and where they fit into it. Turns out it wasn’t all Brett Favre playing football in sensibly cut Wranglers. The YouTube video of the ad boasts twice as many dislikes as likes.
Now Bonobos is launching the next phase of that idea with a new ad campaign called America’s Fit Story.
It continues to address toxic masculinity, despite last year’s negative reviews. The new work profiles 12 men from across the United States—including heavyweight boxing champ Andy Ruiz Jr., L.A. chef Akira Akuto, and Anaré Holmes, an Atlanta firefighter and LGBTQ activist—to illustrate how varied the definition of manhood actually is.
“If you go through a lot of the criticism, it’s about us feminizing men,” says Bonobos CEO Micky Onvural. “That wasn’t our intent. Our intent was to create a more expansive definition that included more facets of masculinity. So when we were crafting this campaign, it was important to us that alongside the gay firefighter, we showed the straight boxing champion. It’s an enormous spectrum.”
Onvural says it’s about sparking a conversation around what it means to be a man today, and how, as an apparel brand, the company can help give men the confidence to express themselves. “We wanted to showcase not only their stories but the confidence they embody around stepping into your true self,” says Onvural. “That’s the difference between this and how some other brands are approaching the conversation around masculinity. For us, it’s not about Bonobos, but about us being a platform for men to use.”
There may be some surprise in some corners that Bonobos decided to keep pushing the gender identity angle, whether because of its reportedly precarious place in Walmart’s portfolio, or the waves of negative responses to “Evolve the Definition.” But Onvural says the love far outweighed the hate. “That then manifested in those who did love it, driving more earned impressions than I could’ve ever afforded to buy,” she says. “It’s also the most successful campaign we’ve ever done in terms of ROI. I can’t share the details, but I can say it was two times the ROI than any other campaign we’ve ever run here.”
The key for Onvural is in letting men speak for themselves, as opposed to crafting a contrived advertising message around the same theme. That was the biggest lesson the brand learned with last year’s work. The most effective and affecting parts were when the men began telling their own stories.
“For this campaign, it was important there was no script,” says Onvural. “We just had some questions and prompts and went from there. It’s about creating a narrative that is the combination of all of those voices, and making sure that it all felt real.”
The company isn’t alone in using its marketing to break gender stereotypes. While the advertising industry overall shoulders plenty of blame and responsibility for reinforcing cliched images of men and women, initiatives like the U.K.’s Advertising Standards Authority ban on gender stereotypes in advertising, and the Unstereotype Alliance, launched by Unilever and UN Women, are working to reverse that role.
“I’m sure there will be people wondering why we just don’t stick to selling pants,” says Onvural. “My response to that is that brands have a responsibility and opportunity to spark and shape cultural conversations. That’s what we’d like to do here around identity, to help create a world where we all fit. Wouldn’t that be nice?”