Navigating a global health, economic and political crisis simultaneously was not really something many people predicted when they were planning for the last year, yet here we are. As consumers battle unprecedented difficulties, businesses are faced with a new set of challenges in dealing with customers’ heightened emotions and evolving needs and concerns.
Whilst they have put measures in place to contain the spread of the virus and the last financial crisis is an all too recent memory, many businesses have typically drawn the line at getting political. But recent events have created something of a shift in consumer attitudes, prompting many brands to take their first political stance.
Although this wasn’t an overnight change, with research indicating that consumer decisions have become increasingly based on a brand’s position on social or political issues in recent years, the intensity of the current circumstances has been so strong that brands and consumers simply cannot ignore them, like they perhaps might have in the past.
Some may argue that this is the result of having more time to listen, paired with less distraction from day to day life during global lockdowns. Others believe that issues, such as Black Lives Matter and LGBTQ+ rights, have reached a tipping point and that collective action must be taken.
But, as many brands move into the political arena for the very first time, they quickly discover just how much impact taking a stance can make on their reputation, image and revenue.
Actions speak louder than words
CrossFit is one of the latest to learn this lesson after experiencing a backlash following comments made by the company’s now ex-CEO. The series of tweets from Greg Glassman made clear his views on the Black Lives Matter movement and, although they came from him, not the brand, the inextricable link between the two led consumers to make their own assumptions on what the business stands for. The repercussions have been damaging, with consumer boycotts and many partners pulling out of contracts.
Ultimately, behind a brand is its people and it’s these individuals who shape its values and who are responsible for making decisions that could potentially resolve a social or political issue inside their organisations once and for all.
So, actually doing something that makes a difference, rather than simply paying lip service to the latest cause célèbre, appears to be the difference maker in this most recent round of political upheaval. Simple statements from brands on their position on diversity are no longer enough, with inclusivity a given, instead of something that can be used to set a brand apart.
Rather, brands that have implemented plans to create real change in their business, industry and wider society, are received better than those who have opted for performative social media statements.
For example, Ben and Jerry’s are notorious for aligning themselves with social justice issues. The brand has been speaking out against systemic racism for many years, but its most recent activity escalated their stance with a call to action for real change at the institutional level. Whilst peers’ empty statements were treated as a marketing tick box exercise, theirs was a bold declaration which did not shy away from a clear political position.
Nike have also built a reputation for being advocates of a progressive political agenda. Throughout the brand’s history, they have made some brave statements of solidarity, equality and social justice at moments of extreme volatility. This includes their continued support for Colin Kaepernick and, recently, for the Black Lives Matter movement.
In a short social video, the sports brand put a clever spin on their iconic slogan, communicating the simple yet effective message of “Don’t do it.” The campaign was one of the best received during an incredibly intense time and, in true Nike fashion, the brand was able to position itself right in the eye of the storm and create a sense of togetherness, to bring everyone along with them on the path to a more inclusive society.
And, highlighting just how successfully they did this, in an internet-first, Adidas retweeted the video from its biggest competitor brand and added “Together is how we move forward. Together is how we make change.”
Similarly, brands, such as Puma, ASOS and Lego, have made financial donations to organisations fighting for racial equality and others have committed to creating programmes to support black-owned businesses and professionals in their respective fields.
Fundamentally, as consumers become more politically and socially aware, brands are being held to higher standards and certain cause-related initiatives are expected from their marketing and communications activities.
In this sense, actions clearly speak louder than words and those that can demonstrate their commitment to the cause are better positioned than those less willing.
But, of course, not all consumers sit on the same side of the political fence and, therefore, the risk of alienating potentially half their audience has been a common reason for brands to avoid making such statements in the past.
However, one thing that needs to be understood here is the significant role brands play in shaping culture, society and, ultimately, the world as we know it today, as in many markets, consumers have admitted to trusting businesses more than they do their government.
And because of this, it’s now more important than ever for brands to have a strong understanding of who they are, what they stand for and their core customer personas. Therefore, there is a need for businesses to place greater importance on brand value propositions and customer segmentation strategies, which can then be used to form the basis of any activity going forward.
The role of social media
In these recent cases, both good and bad, social media has been the common denominator, which highlights just how powerful a tool it is in communicating a brand’s messages, values and, in this case, its political stance.
Social media provides a channel that directly connects brands to consumers. In many ways, this connection allows brands to nurture customer relationships and build trust with direct communication and, in the cases of Nike and Ben and Jerry’s, it has certainly worked well.
Greater visibility and increased consumer engagement are also consequences of a growing social media presence and, again, whilst these can benefit a brand, they can be a reason for their downfall too. CrossFit is a prime example.
In those instances, brands are quickly reminded of the strength in numbers of their consumers as, after all, the ratio of brand to followers works in the favour of the followers. Ultimately, when a mishap occurs, consumers will be quick to catch on and spread awareness through the well-connected social media community.
Therefore, as such a powerful medium, there is clear need for brands to get their social communications right, particularly when taking a political stance or when making any statement at a time of heightened emotion and social unrest. And, as the world’s eyes open wider to such issues, these times will likely be more frequent.
Whether we like it or not, people are responding more emotionally to brands. Those they choose to support publicly very often align with their own personal beliefs and support the image they are trying to portray to others.
And, as Gen Z becomes a prominent consumer segment, brands must acknowledge that they are the most diverse generation to date, due to the expanded view of the world the internet and, in particular, social media have granted them. Ultimately, long-term loyalty and, therefore, a business’ continued success can only be achieved by brands who overtly celebrate the same values as they do.
With all this in mind, a nonchalant approach to a brand’s communications is a recipe for disaster. Whether or not there is a strong enough case for taking a political stance, however, is up to each individual business. Nonetheless, a clear defined communications strategy, and particularly social media, is crucial for any brand to avoid any damaging impact to its reputation and revenue.