Today's brands are expected to do more than simply sell products or services. Their audiences want them to stand behind particular ideals or beliefs, and to use their reach, clout, and resources to effect change in the world. And not just in the vague "help the planet" or "be kind" way that so many brands have relied on in the past. As the world has become more politicized and divided, and as income, class and racial disparities have become more evident, consumers want brands to openly and assertively stand behind the things that matter to them.
Faced with 57% of customers willing to boycott brands that don't share their beliefs, brands are finding that wading into the waters of activism is less risky than doing nothing at all.
There's No Such Thing as a Neutral Brand
Until recently many brands have stayed silent on hot button topics, assuming that neutrality was a safer bet than taking a position one way or the other. But as many people have pointed out, staying silent is taking a stand: it's a tacit endorsement of the status quo. Being apolitical may have been a possibility for the brands of yesterday, but as brand positioning, marketing and outreach have become increasingly aligned with the identities and viewpoints of consumers, embracing the social or political issues that matter to your audience is a must.
Take Colorado's indie bookshop chain The Tattered Cover. The store stayed quiet throughout the June 2020 George Floyd Black Lives Matter protests, speaking up only to explain its silence and position of "neutrality", which it had also held through numerous other critical social issues. The backlash was severe and immediate, resulting in the store issuing an apology to its staff and customers.
Using Your Brand Clout to Change the World
Where some brands derail their brand by prevaricating over whether to speak up, others are boldly leaping into the fray. Done right, a powerful progressive ad campaign can amplify your brand's standing while being a powerful ally - or vanguard - for the people and causes who will benefit most. Take AirBnB's "we accept" ad, created in response to Trump's order to close US borders to refugees. Aired during the Super Bowl, it made its point loudly, proudly, and to the entire nation. Given that Airbnb is a brand built on travel and cross-cultural experiences, it was a stand that made total sense, and that the company would have been remiss not to get behind.
As recent Black Lives Matters protests have spread across the nation and around the world, our social feeds and email inboxes have been filled with corporate statements and promises. But it's the brands who have really gone the extra mile who have stood out as true allies and not just companies checking the corporate activism box. For #BlackoutTuesday, LEGO donated $4m racial equality organizations, while also requesting sellers not advertise police or White House-themed LEGO sets. It was a powerful statement about the redistribution of resources, and also about the kind of world young people should be thinking about building.
Of course, it's not always the size of your advertising budget that matters. Other smaller organizations ranging from restaurant collectives to small business organizations, have gathered together to amplify black voices and black-owned businesses, or to reveal disparities in salaries or opportunities. These small, grassroots efforts shine a light on other areas of an issue and can be just as valuable as opening up your wallet.
Take a Stand - But Be Sure to Mean It
While issues such as Black Lives Matter or climate change are relevant to every brand in the US, not all will be. Organizations that leap on an activism bandwagon, use a cause to drum up sales, or simply do the bare minimum in order to avoid bad press will end up doing more harm than good.
When committing to a cause, consider its relevance to your brand platform, your understanding of the issue, and your ability to follow through. Don't be Pepsi appropriating the language of protest to sell a soft drink, or a bunch of wealthy celebrities singing "Imagine" to an anxious, largely unemployed nation during a global pandemic. Read the room, avoid tokenism, get creative, and strive to create something that will actually make a difference. If you get it right, you'll build some powerful brand equity - but more importantly, you'll also help build a better world.