Polls open: democrats, republicans… or brands?

Would you trust a CEO to tackle a problem better than the President? In 2018, around 54% of people surveyed by Edelman believed that corporations are more effective at tackling societal changes than a government. For a few years now, businesses have played a role in the political realm and found themselves in the middle of controversial debates. In an era where the general public might perceive businesses as more trustworthy than governments, global names have a responsibility to step in and take a stance on big issues.

The 21st century is witnessing “the birth of Brand Democracy, as consumers are electing brands as their change agents” said Richard Edelman, CEO of Edelman. With the general public’s spending habits becoming increasingly contingent on their relationships with business, brands have reacted by no longer simply focusing on their business interests, but on becoming advocates for social change. As the CSR study found, 43% of consumers are expressing a purchase intent after seeing values-led communication, the same percentage as after seeing a product-focused message, reinforcing the idea that brand’s adherence to its values and its stance on big issues plays a big role for us. At this point, brands don’t have a choice to opt-out of taking a stance, they just need to decide how to do it and connect it to their long-established values.

In 2018, 54% of people surveyed by Edelman believed that corporations are more effective at tackling societal changes than a government.

A recent example of how a company can take a stance on a ‘big’ issue is a Gillette video advertisement featuring the rebranded slogan of “Is this the best a man can get?” in light of the #MeToo movement. The advertisement portrayed ‘toxic masculinity’ and sought to promote behavior which would lead to younger boys standing up for women. However, as expected, not everyone reacted positively and on YouTube, the video is disliked 440K times more than liked. Tweets have also called to boycott Gillette: “@Gillette has made it clear they do not want the business of masculine men,” read a tweet by @MongoAggression. Nevertheless, many praised Gillette for sending out a positive message to younger generations. As PR expert Mark Borkowski highlighted, Gillette’s ad is a very well-thought campaign that portrays the company’s purpose, recognizing that masculinity has to be reconceptualized in the new generation. Through its marketing, Gillette filled in an educational void on how men should perceive masculinity and sexual harassment.

Nike also made headlines with Colin Kaepernick who became controversial for kneeling down during the national anthem at NFL games. Through their campaign, Nike faced a backlash with people burning their Nike merchandise in protest. Despite multiple complaints, Nike’s sales grew by 31% and were positively viewed by younger consumers. As Erinn Murphy has pointed out, Nike is proof that it’s more valuable for brands to defend a position or a social movement than stay neutral. A Quinnipiac University poll found that 49% of American voters approved Nike’s campaign with 37% against it. In this case, the big brand railed against social injustice by supporting Kaepernick’s bold stance on police brutality. On top of connecting with their consumers, their financial success after the campaign showed how bravery can pay off. If anything, President Trump’s suggestions that NFL and Nike were in trouble for expressing their opinions were fake news. So, who is public meant to trust more? Facts or the elected officials?

But, not all companies that take a stance do it well. Take Pepsi for example, with its tone-deaf take on the Black Lives Matter movement catastrophically backfiring and failing to attract consumer support. In their statement, Pepsi said they “[were] trying to project a global a message of unity, peace and understanding.” However, many mocked the ad and it was shortly taken down thereafter. As Larry Chiagouris, a professor of marketing at Pace University noticed Pepsi were a few years too late on this issue, which made it look exploitive and inauthentic. The backlash it generated can be compared to protests that political decisions trigger suggesting that our society sometimes takes brands as seriously as it does its governments.

Brand Democracy is starting to take hold in society and is only expected to take on a bigger role. Although it might mean higher chances of ‘getting it wrong’, as with Pepsi, it’s also a great chance for corporations to rebrand and show that they’re on the right side of history.  As the general public, particularly younger generations, seek more responsible brands to tackle social issues, businesses have the responsibility to respond. Doing so has the potential to help a company better define its core values and positively affects its bottom line – albeit only if properly executed. Amongst angry tweets and dislikes, brands should take a stance as only the brave ones will survive.

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