Opinionista Mpeo Nkosi 23 July 2020

There’s value in a brand authentically joining a social movement

Maya Angelou said, ‘Courage is the most important of all the virtues.’ There may be few other times in human history than now when these words were more apt.

As individuals, businesses, countries and a species we face multiple and serious threats to our future well-being. Some things – like world hunger and climate change, not to mention worldwide pandemics – are catastrophic on a planetary scale. Others, like our ongoing struggle for racial equality or against poverty, divide the human race along ideological lines.

Enter into this scenario brands and marketers. What should brands be saying on these – and other – social issues? When a movement like #BlackLivesMatter starts up, should a brand express solidarity? When the ugly face of gender-based violence has an influential name, of an influencer or media mogul attached to it, should advertisers withdraw their spend? Let us be clear, this is not a marketing question. 

This goes to the core beliefs of the company and the values for which the brand stands. Creating communications and putting your name behind a cause is the end result of a lot of soul searching, not the start. Generally, if something feels too easy, it is.

In the modern digital world, there are countless ways to claim support for something or someone. In fact, many causes, protests and movements come with ready-made imagery, keywords, hashtags and playbooks. It has never been simpler to stand up and be counted, or at least be seen to be.

But these kinds of gestures can easily backfire. Brands find their messages challenged by employees, by customers who disagree with them, as well as by those who care deeply about the issue but who aren’t buying it from you. This is the heart of the matter: if you try to score quick virtue points you end up impressing no one and possibly damaging your brand.

What does your brand actually stand for? When the cameras are off and the stage goes dark do you have a deep commitment to redressing racial injustice or fighting for gay rights? Does your workplace reflect what your brand said in the bright lights of social media? Do all of your leaders – and all of your employees – share this commitment? Does your company support legislation and organisations that stand with these causes daily? Have you got a track record of living these values or do they come and go depending on the Twitter trends?

Authenticity cannot be faked; or at least faking it is not sustainable. That’s great news for brands who are projecting an image and acting in a way that aligns with their culture and beliefs.

Sometimes speaking out is just about raising your hand and jumping on the bandwagon. But most of the time real change is painful. You will feel lonely doing it. You will enrage and lose customers and employees. You will field nasty comments on social media and may face a backlash in the press. So why do it? Maybe you shouldn’t. Not every brand and every company needs to, wants to, or should be fighting these battles. It has to come from a deep and authentic place.

It would be admirable if all companies on Earth put effort into making the world a better place, but I am a realist and know that lots of businesses are built on making profits for profit’s sake and profit’s sake alone. So, if something is not what your business is about, it’s OK to stay out of it, say nothing and stand by your choice to say nothing. It is a choice, after all, and a choice that is preferable, certainly, to briefing your ad agency to make it seem like you care.

There are, however, two really good reasons why brands should be purposeful. First, it’s a demonstration of your values, and increasingly consumers are choosing to do business with companies who have a point of view and values which they share. Consumers do not live in a world of linear boxes where decisions are made in isolation of their whole selves. 

Numerous case studies, from Nike to Unilever to Dove to Carling Black Label to the rise of entire organic offerings in almost every industry possible, prove that if customers see you advocating for causes they care about they will choose your products so they can be a part of that. Unilever has recently announced that its “purposeful” brands are doing so well that they are going to be moving all the others in that direction too.

Second, because the many crises facing the world are real and brands can make a difference. RCL Foods (full disclosure: one of our clients), for example, started The Do More Foundation which aims to feed 10 million children during the Covid-19 pandemic – along with many other child and youth-related projects. This is an expensive and complicated exercise but its impact on the lives of millions is manifest. It comes from a company that really cares and is willing to put time, money and effort into making a difference and acknowledging that the profits it makes by sitting on the shelves of homes of families allow it to be a part of protecting future families. When you visit the Do More website, though, you won’t even see RCL branding – a sure sign that this is not a marketing trick.

Authenticity cannot be faked; or at least faking it is not sustainable. That’s great news for brands who are projecting an image and acting in a way that aligns with their culture and beliefs.

For the rest, my advice is to find a way to start doing that. If that means becoming a champion of amazing societal causes the world could certainly do with all the help it can get. But if that’s not your mission, then leave your company social media profile pic alone. BM/DM

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