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Brand Activism

By Adriane Borden

We’re seeing a shift from brands appeasing the masses to brands taking a stand.

American consumers have reached a new level of sociopolitical polarization, with serious implications for marketers. As American values divide and shift faster than ever, brands need to understand their consumer on a deeper level. Consumers have an increasing desire to find shared values with brands — caring not only about what they sell (their what) but also about what they stand for (their why). In the past few years, many brands have recognized the need for purpose to be at the core of their brand identity. As the national conversation becomes more divisive than ever, brands now need to move away from generic purpose statements, and tackle issues that exist beyond the soft middle ground of society. What is a brand to do in this new normal?

So how is this trend is coming to life today?

Sociopolitical Divide

The political, social and philosophical divides that are so apparent in headlines and polls represent more than just cultural divisions in the US. They track to very different consumer behaviors and expectations, too. Traditional frameworks that marketers use to compare and contrast consumers, such as generational shifts, may be masking key differences in consumer sentiment and behavior — differences that marketers must understand in order to connect with their consumers. It’s in the very divisions generating cultural friction that brands can find a fresh and constructive angle from which to view their consumers.

There is newfound consumer appetite for brands to shape cultural discourse, particularly around provocative subjects. 69% of people globally trust businesses to keep pace with a changing world, while only 47% trust governments to do the same (Edelman, 2016).

The Budweiser 2016 Superbowl ad Born the Hard Way nodded to the benefits of immigration. The spot depicts its founder’s journey from Germany to the United States, and visualizes the overt hostility that he received as an immigrant. The ad itself polarized America’s already divided audience. Some applauded Budweiser’s stance, while others criticized it for being overtly political (believing that the Superbowl and politics shouldn’t mix), and for alienating part of Budweiser’s core target audience, the American Midwest. Either way, in the midst of a deeply divisive election cycle, the spot grabbed attention and — importantly — firmly stated the brand’s position.

Demographic Divide

Protesting is no longer reserved for the passionate few. Gen Y & Z are a part of the democratization of activism. These are activists who are making their voices heard every day, and they aren’t going to settle down or return to “normal life” anytime soon. According to a 2015 study by Cone Communications, “91% of all millennials would switch brands to one with a cause.” No longer should brands expect resonate with everyone — that type of messaging will leave them looking bland, and they’ll be overshadowed by those companies in their competition that choose to take a stand.

Recently, Procter & Gamble took a calculated risk with its ad The Talk, the latest in a multi-year history of similar campaigns from P&G addressing socially relevant issues. It features black mothers speaking to their children about racial bias over the decades. The company says it knew there might be a backlash, and indeed the spot has been both criticized and praised by different audiences. Regardless of individual response, it has succeeded in sparking thoughtful conversation around a topic of national interest and import.

Crossing the Divide

While the debate continues on what type of social and political stances feel appropriate for a brand to take, companies that shrink the divide win on both sides. According to Scott Goodson of Strawberryfrog in his book UpRising, “People prefer brands that are tackling the bigger issues that are relevant to them in comparison to brands that simply sell stuff. This is especially true with millennials and exceptionally true with Gen Z. They ignore traditional brands and align with ‘cultural movement’ brands.”

Heineken’s #OpenYourWorld campaign has a simple premise: find two people who disagree on a particular issue, place them together in a room, and let them talk it out over a beer. The campaign addresses differing viewpoints on issues like feminism, climate change and transgender rights — and in the end, the spots champion respect for humanity, no matter what you believe.

In an unprecedented move, more than 100 American companies including Apple, Facebook, and Google stepped into the legal fight against the Trump Administration’s travel ban. Mark Parker, Nike Chief Executive, also implored his employees to stand up for the brand’s values of celebrating diversity in an internal email that has since been widely shared. “Nike believes in a world where everyone celebrates the power of diversity. Regardless of whether or how you worship, where you come from or who you love, everyone’s individual experience is what makes us stronger as a whole.”

So what does this have to do with your brand?

  • As humans keep evolving, we want to keep inspiring people and brands to do good, support their purpose, and fulfill real needs of people. 
  • Different sociopolitical mindsets reveal far greater variation in top-ranked values than traditional demographic markers.
  • These sociopolitical perspectives manifest themselves in consumer behaviors, with “Very Liberal” consumers more brand-focused and “Very Conservative” consumers more focused on finding deals.
  • Brands that speak to the underlying values of their target consumers can sharpen their messaging and maximize their marketing impact.
  • Brand messaging must be believable and sincere — and not be seen as jumping on the bandwagon. The backlash will be rough for any brand seen to “cash in” on any cause. Marketers must show that any message or stance is embedded in the company’s internal culture, and not just another “for-profit” message.
  • Taking a stand is polarizing, and could drive away potential customers who hold a different view. Marketers must weigh the risks versus rewards, and that will be best enabled by knowing your consumers well.
  • Don’t be a “me too.” Lead a movement; don’t engage on a topic simply because it’s becoming popular in your category at a certain time.
  • This approach is not right for every brand. In some cases, big brands are big because they unite a diverse group of consumers with divergent values and preferences. Brands should always stand with purpose, but not always with a political agenda.

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