Dear DD, what is the deal with big brands like Nike and Qantas getting all political? Aren’t they alienating their core audiences? Should my business be fighting the good fight?
Doctor Digital Says
Brands taking stands crept into the spotlight towards the end of 2016. Unsurprisingly, there was a correlation between the ascendency of the Trump presidency, and the concern across much of the American public as to what were becoming hot button social justice and human rights issues. The emerging attitude of brand activists was encapsulated as when your government stands for nothing, you have to stand for something, and this attitude is getting louder and stronger into 2019.
It’s a particular moment in time globally, with many polarising issues that in a vacuum of inactivity, are gaining activists in some unlikely corporate places. As a Doctor of things digital rather than things political, I’m not going to analyse the causes and conditions for brands taking a stand. I am going to have a look at how advertising is being used to highlight corporate social responsibility, and the new levels of playing fields that brands big and small can enter when being transparent on their values and beliefs.
The majority of companies that are headlining the brands making stands are US originated multinationals, no surprises there. The surprise is that these size of shareholder driven companies have chosen a side, in a landscape where traditionally politics and policy was not an area companies choose to discuss for fear of alienating their consumers or often more importantly backers.
Undoubtedly social media and the vast amount of conversations that go on shine a light on consumer sentiment such that big brands can make a calculated guess on where their purchasers politics lie. Nike made and continues to make a stance on racism in sport with their support of Colin Kaepernick. Clearly, they understand their demographics and that their core supporters will see that stand, and get into line behind them. It becomes a moral platform that elevates the brand to a clear position.
In Australia, our big brands are still largely pleasing everyone most of the time. Qantas made a significant stand on the gay marriage debate, which for sure gave them some bad press from certain areas, but also some very good press, globally aligned with a large part of their core travelling audience. AirBnB in Australia also weighed in on that debate with strong demographic support. Social media is likely to be a new frontier for companies pulling their ads if they can’t be guaranteed to not appear alongside videos or posts that are not brand friendly as Unilever has already done across its suite of products.
The other big push for brands taking stands and corporate social responsibility are the buying and lifestyle habits of millennials. Driven by cause and purpose with a heavy dose of social sharing and consumer boycott, brands are taking stands when they know their key customers expect an element of activism around core issues like climate change, refugees, social justice issues and animal rights.
You may well be thinking that this is a game for the big end of town, or massive economies like the US. Not so. The principle behind making a stand really comes down to having a rock solid understanding of your values and your audience. If you really know who your people are, you are already in an ongoing two way conversation with them, deeply understand what is important to them, and influences their buying habits. By taking a stand on issues that matter you won’t be alienating your core, you will be confirming your commitment to things that matter to you, reflect your values and assure people they are spending their money where it matters to them. For small companies and their products/services this can early on create a strong leverage in the market as a differentiator to larger competitors, and elevate your capacity to get noticed and lauded by new evangelists to your common cause.
Of course, there are risks in drawing a line in your brand's sand. The risks are around when you take a stand purely for commercial gain, we also call that a grandstand. The public will call that out quickly and swiftly, as Pepsi found when they used Kendall Jenner in an ad centred around a social justice protest. It was quickly pulled against howls of in-authenticity and privilege. You have to be seen and actually be aligned with that which you are standing against, and be prepared to defend your position publically.
The flames will be worth the candle however, as longitudinal research into buying habits has shown that consumers are consistently purchasing or dropping brands based on their political stands. To solve the world’s greatest challenges requires the participation of all communities, not least businesses - where can you take a stand?