We live in a time when issues around the world have varying shades of grey. But the opinions surrounding them are now, more than ever, seen in stark black or white.
To take a few recent instances, Donald Trump’s immigration policies have different sides to it, but it’s very clear which side the people are on. The #MeToo juggernaut has made men confused about
everyday social interactions, but there’s no doubt about what society wants. Governments around the world continue to shift their stance on a credible climate change policy, but the future depends on only one way forward.
What all of this essentially means is that stances on issues are hardening like never before. The issues themselves may not be clear-cut, but people will rally around on one side or the other. And it’s not always only Governments, organisations or individuals taking a firm stand. Increasingly, corporate entities and brands are not afraid to take a very strong and public stance.
Howard Schultz of Starbucks, before he stepped down as Executive Chairman, took on Donald Trump’s contentious immigration ban by declaring that his company would hire as many as 10,000 refugees over the next 5 years because he believed it was better to build bridges than walls with Mexico, through continued investment in the country.
Similarly, Brian Chesky of Airbnb offered free housing to refugees stranded by Trump’s ill-devised travel ban.
And Unilever’s Ben & Jerry took on the Australian Government by withdrawing its Phish Food Ice-
cream flavour to highlight the damage caused to the Great Barrier Reef by dredging activities.
Pressure from an online campaign called ‘Stop Funding Hate’ led to Lego, Sainsbury’s and John Lewis withdrawing their advertisements in the Daily Mail.
The Sochi Olympics in Russia were inundated with strong brand messages against the domestic policies of the Russian Government.
So why have corporate entities and brands suddenly become activists? It’s not like there was no strife in the world earlier. Neither is it that brands have developed a conscience overnight.
It probably has to do with an emerging brave new world that always has an opinion on everything.
And with democratised means of communication like social media through which they constantly Tweet, Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp, it’s no longer difficult for them to find a platform to give a voice to their opinions. Further, besides just having and voicing their opinions, people, particularly the millennials and GenZ, now expect those they associate with to do the same.
Brands, on their part, won’t have much of an existence without their constituency, so they are in a
way forced to take a stance on issues that matter to their audiences, who are becoming more and more purpose-driven and have a clear preference for brands that are led by higher motives and have a point of view built on fundamental human truths, universal good, or a deep conviction that opens their minds and connects to their belief systems.
Under Armour’s fitness and exercise platform to raise awareness about breast health, Dove’s drive for body positivity, Tata Tea’s corruption mitigation ideas and P&G’s campaign to get people to think twice about what it means to do something ‘Like a Girl’ have showcased brands’ desire to embrace serious issues that increase engagement with their audiences and help build deeper, stronger relationships.
But while brands have been taking such serious social stances with their messaging and associations for some time, of late, they seem to be getting on to a different, more volatile space altogether. Brands now need to confront the rise of identity politics that conflict with their stances/marketing campaigns in a larger-than-life manner, as crowd cultures become more polarised, both online and offline. In fact, there is a good chance of this only intensifying in the near future and drawing more brands into its fold.
To be fair, for decades, the more well-known brands have always had a view on certain issues that concerned either their customers or society in general and those views reinforced their identities and beliefs and put out the perception of a brand that goes beyond being an economic unit of transaction to one that celebrates the greater good. But what is different now is the fact that society at large is itself politically charged and cognizant of the issues that matter. The daily interactions on social media are a case in point, where individuals are swamped with more and more political or politically related content.
This is not to say that the users are being put off. On the contrary, they can’t seem to have enough.
And once they have taken their sides, they want to know which side of the political divide the
brands that they are associated belong to, if only because it reinforces and justifies their own stand.
Moreover, people no longer expect the brands they associate with to only conform to one side or
the other, like the right or left of the political spectrum. They would love it even more if their brand
formulates its own unique point of view because then that also suggests that the brand is even
more invested in an issue and hence worthy of wearing proudly as a badge. This even leads to
communities of like-minded individuals being formed on the basis of their association with a
particular brand ideology.
In this politically charged environment, it is almost impossible for any major brand to be apolitical. A
corporate or brand entity is akin to a real person and hence is expected to have its own beliefs,
values, attitudes, character, personality and behavioural traits. It needs to be very clear what it
stands for and what it fights against.
As much as a brand has its own unique history, it will also be expected to set out on what basis its
future will be built on. Hence, a brand can no longer remain relevant if it chooses to be politically
indifferent. It can act on an issue or against it, but it cannot choose to remain neutral, because that
would clearly signify that the brand has no point of view and hence is not worthy of being
In a recent study done by a giant global PR firm it is said that 57% of consumers are now buying or
boycotting one or more brands because of the brand’s position on a political or social issue. 23%
will pay at least a 25% premium for a brand that speaks out with a position they agree with versus
one that remains silent, and 48% will advocate for or defend a brand, and criticize its competitors, if
it speaks out with a position they agree with versus a brand that remains silent.
So there are a few things that need to be considered before a brand can be counted as one that
has a political point of view.
Ideas, not ideology
Brands need to concern themselves purely with the ideas, causes and sentiments of a particular issue and not identify with the political parties that propagate them. So brands need to stay away from associating with parties of various hues – saffron, red, green, blue or yellow and stick to aligning with the idea that needs to be highlighted.
Inclusive, yet focussed
Brands have a clear constituency. They are targeted at a particular segment and not the world in general.
The strongest brands are those that are aware of whom they serve, and are in turn configured for them.
Hence, its point of view needs to specifically appeal to that segment which it caters to and seeks to
represent. This explains why Airbnb’s Super Bowl ad on immigration created a bigger stir than
Budweiser’s ad on the same issue, as the latter was seen as speaking against many of its own devoted consumers.
Deeds, not just words
Brands can’t afford to just dip their toes in and test the waters. They need to be prepared for the deep dive. If they decide to take the political plunge, they need to have the resolve and the resources to back it up. They need to put their money where their mouth is, because often, a political stance will involve just that – a lot of money.
When Ben & Jerry’s decided to highlight its concerns over the damage to the Great Barrier Reef, it
embarked on a road trip around Australia, handing out free ice-cream. Despite the Government’s call for a boycott against the brand, a study by the Brisbane Times revealed that 81% of the respondents to its survey on the issue said they would be more inclined to purchase the brand because of its sincere campaign.
In conclusion, it is pertinent to highlight the stance taken by Nike in the Colin Kaepernick episode, to
reinforce the importance of brands taking on a political point of view.
In the racially volatile atmosphere of Trump’s America, police brutality against people of colour is turning out to be a socially divisive issue. Kaepernick, one of America’s leading stars in the National Football League (NFL) decided to stand up for the victims by doing literally the opposite – kneel down when the National Anthem was being played before a game.
This led to the NFL colluding to keep the San Francisco 49ers quarter-back out of playing contention, forcing Kaepernick to file a lawsuit against the League. This is when Nike stepped in. Known for its engaging messages urging people to ‘Just Do It’, Nike, which was celebrating the 30th anniversary of that iconic slogan, decided to run a campaign backing Keapernick, knowing fully well the associated risk of a backlash on the brand image and its business.
Nike released an ad with the message ‘Believe in Something. Even if it means Sacrificing Everything’, plastered on the player’s visage, alluding to him running a professional risk in taking on the burning issue. And even though Nike was attacked viciously on social media and in the physical world, with its merchandise being damaged and even facing the ire of the President himself, it continued to stand by its decision to back an individual who was taking on the establishment, and an idea that was one of the cornerstones of democracy – that of social inclusiveness.
The Nike stand shows how its political point of view not only gained wide visibility, credibility and
acceptability but also stayed true to its brand belief of exhorting people to take the initiative. Sadly, there have not been such instances of brands taking a strong political stance here in India. Indian
brands are way too complicit in towing the official line and are very skeptical and wary of taking on the establishment publicly, fearing the possible repercussions.
Perhaps, in the near future, aided by the increasingly vast numbers of people wanting to associate with or support a worthy cause, Indian brands will hopefully take on a more engaging and worthwhile political stance, that will only add more respectability and allure to their brand.
(S Subramanyeswar is the chief strategy officer at Lowe Lintas.)