Brand managers used to be very careful not to mix political, societal or risky issues and the brands’ speech. They used to be more than careful. But we live in moments where people are expecting brands to take a stand. There are too many issues around the world, in all countries and all layers of the society. And the issues are getting more troubling with the increasing power of social media and communication possibilities.
Whether you agree or not, the above decisions were at the low end of the risk scale. Wading into a third-rail issue like immigration, abortion, or even climate change, can be far more perilous to a brand reputation. The research isn’t definitive, but most studies show that taking a stand amidst controversy does come with risk. But people are changing – our lovely Millennials – are far more likely to say that brands should take a clear stand. Apple did something remarkable this year, coming against an anti-LGBT bill. Companies are starting to recognize that their customers care not only about what they sell but also about what they stand for. And customers care more and more about what they fight for. The surge of brand activism we’ve seen in the past few years has been decades in the making. With the rise of social media, citizen journalism, and near-universal access to publishing tools, brands are simply more aware of what their customers think. The same tools give brands the opportunity to join issue conversations, brands aim to nurture customer relationships that are lifelong, built not just on product features but also on shared cultural values.
GOING BEYOND CULTURAL CAPITALISM
It’s worth distinguishing brand activism–when a company takes concrete actions to advance a cause or issue position–from mere cultural capitalism. These days, almost all companies are cultural capitalists, using their marketing and their business practices to establish a set of values you buy into when you buy their products.
WEIGHING RISKS AND REWARDS
Brand activism isn’t a natural fit for every company and risks can be more than annoying. Taking a stand is polarizing and could turn off or even drive away potential customers who don’t agree with you. Also, if your company is in a business that’s fundamentally controversial, well, that can be really bad, putting oil on the fire, to say the least.
MOVING WITH HONESTY
Don’t do it for marketing purposes, it must be rooted in what your company and your employees really believe. It must be real, don’t fake it.
It’s important for companies engaging in brand activism to be seen as leaders in their industry, not followers. You can definitely lead your competitors to join your cause and everybody will remember that you started the movement.
When the heat is on, it may be tempting to retreat from an unpopular position, but a flip-flop can worsen the situation by angering a whole new tribe of consumers. It’s far better to weather the storm.
PLANNING FOR REACTION
Every action gets a reaction. Your brand should be ready for that. Because taking a position or a stand requires to be prepared for contradiction.
Consumers are more than ready to follow the brands that are going further than products and services, brands sharing their values and their fights. A perfect time to get bold, or simply to be honest.