Resist, Persist And Protest Or Face A BrandLash?

Why brands are facing unprecedented calls to pick a side.

Who thought we’d ever see the day when Donald Trump would become the President of (for now) the free world and that the UK would be leaving Europe. Both have become hugely significant political upheavals in our time and will undoubtedly have long-lasting global implications.

As a global backlash ensues following Trump’s inauguration and his subsequent unleashing of radical executive orders – the world has entered a new and dangerous phase. You could say emphatically that we are living in the midst of a global social crises. And in times of crises, the call for bold and fearless action is louder than ever and there is no exemption for brands. The emerging global position has put the spotlight on a rising storm of differing perspectives, and brands have been caught in the crosswinds. Brands are increasingly discovering the stark reality of their active play to be a part of culture. That very same culture they’ve been vying to gain authenticity in – is now demanding that those brands also meet the social concerns of their consumers and employees. It’s becoming a fine balancing act to walk on a precarious tight-rope and as many have found out recently, one that some brands can easily fall off of.

These are times of reputational risks, while navigating some murky waters, brands are riding across high emotions and need to flow very carefully. While some are terrified of political discourse others are finding the opportunity ripe to stand in their purpose. From brands to publishers, bloggers and models, to designers and brand CEO’s – many are now using their platforms, influence and powerful voices to fearlessly position themselves and take a stance that can make a real cultural difference. “Consumers on social won’t hold back in criticizing brands that are not aligned with their values,” – according to a social communications director, Nadina Guglielmetti at Huge.

Who could have imagined a political statement could be made by burning New Balance trainers to a crisp. A backlash immediately after Trump’s election and their perceived support for his policies, eventually forced New Balance to make a statement reported on CNN Money -“We are not the shoes of white supremacists”.

Shockingly, it didn’t go unnoticed that literally few major brands made the rush to comment publicly about President Trump’s executive order on immigration. But Nike’s Mark Parker and Raf Simons statements emboldened many to follow suit. Parker boldly blasted Trumps Immigration policy saying “Nike stands together against bigotry and any form of discrimination,” continuing “Now more than ever, let’s stand up for our values and remain open and inclusive as a brand and as a company.” Nike now, is demanding Equality and their new campaign is already trending on YouTube within a day of launching online.

Raf Simons also spoke recently after his latest Fall/Winter 17 show and acknowledged the power and responsibility of his voice as a brand – “I think when you have a voice, and when you want to have a voice, you cannot just walk around it. I feel I need to do something.” as featured in the FT.Com.

What’s abundantly becoming clearer is despite the perceived apathy of millennials, it’s the younger audiences who are demanding more political engagement than ever before. This new, powerful global community is more astute than ever and media brands who speak honestly are seeing the pay-off against falling legacy publishers. Teen Vogue’s editorial strategy, saw a dramatic change under the direction of Conde Nast’s youngest Editor, Elaine Welteroth who successfully tapped into the spirit of young women. With a literally unapologetic approach to their political coverage, it was their editorial voice that surprisingly for many cut through with its journalistic integrity and gritty approach to politics, feminism, identity, and activism.

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Brands today are facing a huge dilemma – if they fail to act, then ultimately their brand values will be aligned with the platforms they advertise on. While Ben & Jerry’s ice-cream have expressly made their position clear about issues from Black Lives Matter to progressive politics for some time now, brands like Kellogg’s recently pulled their advertising from Breitbart News “to ensure our ads do not appear on sites that aren’t aligned with our values as a company”.

Brands are now facing a backlash and it’s also prompting campaigners like ‘Stop Funding Hate’ to shed light on advertising practises. Brands from Lego, to M&S, Sainsbury’s, John Lewis and Tesco’s have been called out for advertising on hate-breeding media platforms such as the Daily Mail, Sun and The Express. Some movements aren’t just questioning their political elites, but are starting to look harder at what agenda their pockets are serving.

Brand stalwarts have all been forced to re evaluate their positions, calling into question their role in supporting certain media platforms and their editorial philosophy and political voice. They are having to take a serious look at how they are perceived. That they are ultimately aligning their brand values with those of Right-Wing Hate and extremist titles.

What we need to be asking now is who we want to build relationships with and at the same time ask ourselves who we want to be. Ultimately whether you’re an influencer or not, are your values centred around an all-encompassing obsession with aspiration? In an ad age that’s personalised a ‘consumer is king persona’ around brand messages that dictate the kind of person you might want to be – whether you’re ‘Thinking Different’ or ‘Just Doing It’ – you might want to look again and actually ask yourself – who’s doing the thinking for you?

In a race for eyes and clicks, media platforms have consistently fed the appetite for fact-lite, click-bait stories. Some of these have influenced the vote with hate-high stories that have also now proved to have had an influence in the rhetoric and rise of Xenophobic, racist, sexist crimes. If we can’t stop the hate on the front pages, we can stop spending our money with the brands that are funding the hate.

Another US campaign sprang up soon after the election calling for the boycott of Trump operated or affiliated businesses, with a social media hashtag #GrabYourWallet.

Although the list left out social media platforms such as Facebook who’ve come under considerable criticism since the election for their fake news problem, the rising dissent prompted Google to act swiftly in relation to complaints about similar issues on the search platform. Ironically Ivanka Trump is now a victim of her father’s political success, being named in the #GrabYourWallets boycott, which is successfully encouraging shoppers to avoid brands that support Trump’s administration. Ivanka’s low sales highlight that the boycott seems to be working, with both Nordstrom and Nieman Marcus recently deciding to pull the line after the election.

Boycotts unlike politically motivated sanctions, still have the power to put the rage back into our pockets and it can influence the course of brands and businesses giving away more money to billionaire tycoons who are promoting hate-filled propaganda.  Uber recently felt the power of the protest, when their recent attempts to remove surge pricing to undermine NYC taxi drivers during the JFK airport protests resulted in the #DELETEUBER.

Interestingly, in a recent Marketing Week article, ISBA’s director of public affairs Ian Twinn said  “The political stance of any news media should not come into consideration for a brand”.  This could not be further from the truth – it’s never been more relevant for brands to take a distinguished position on where they sit. Starbucks Chairman and CEO Howard Schultz recently acknowledged “We are living in an unprecedented time, one in which we are witness to the conscience of our country, and the promise of the American Dream, being called into question. These uncertain times call for different measures and communication tools than we have used in the past.”  

So, are we entering a period of ‘Morality Marketing’? David Parry COO for Global Brand and Innovation Consultancy Saffron seems to think so and believes that the wave of brands engaging in politics is here to stay. Parry goes on to say “As a brand you have to ask yourself: ‘Is this a fight you really want to take part in? Are you simply adding noise to an already saturated crowd or are you truly adding value?”

This weekend’s Saturday Night Live brought home some healthy brand skepticism about true intentions. Hitting the ultimate cynical brand nerve, SNL demonstrated why brands need to think long and hard about how authentic their approach to sensitive issues really are. We’re at a time now where parodying brands on network television is a real risk alongside the risk brands face of a President Agent Orange blasting them on Twitter for daring to #resist. It’s become apparent where some brands may seek to capitalise on politically sensitive issues (even when they’re completely unrelated to their product) – others may actually need that extra boost in their battle against an autocrat.

So, the message is loud and clear – brands can and will play an important role, and their loud voice to support political viewpoints and issues may require a solid spine. They need to think long and hard before doing it and pick a side, because once they’re out there, it’s done. It may be their consumers who won’t agree, or a president who won’t agree – but either one of them could hit them where it hurts!