How Brands are Trying to Get it Right… or Left

A longstanding unwritten rule of advertising is to not get involved in taking sides on divisive issues. The potential to not only alienate, but anger, large chunks of your potential client base is just too big a risk to consider, right?

Well, things seem to have changed in recent times. 2017 saw a huge shift in brand behaviour and advertising globally. With brands speaking up in support of the global #metoo movement, the same-sex marriage survey in Australia, and more recently companies in the US bailing on partnerships with the NRA, it suddenly seems like a no-brainer that brands get involved in taking a stance on contentious political and social issues. Cynics might see it as an exploitative attempt to cash-in on serious social movements, others see it as an opportunity to use a brand’s influence on public sentiment to effect positive change.

Important social statement or PR stunt?

Who’s behind this?  

Despite many people thinking of Gen Z and Millennials as lazy, spoilt, and disenfranchised, it turns out that while they don’t necessarily care about politicians, they do care about political and social issues. These generations have grown up in a world of total consumerism. Whether it be the clothes they wear, the food they eat, the music they listen to, or articles they read, what they consume is a very important part of the image they forge for themselves. So while they may not necessarily vote for who they want in office, they’ll happily spend their money on brands that reflect their personal values and beliefs.

What trumped tradition?

What was so special about 2017 that saw this shift hit full stride? Ever since November 8th 2016, the world seems to be in the eye of a political shitstorm greater than anything the youth of today have ever seen. The shock results of both Brexit and Donald Trump’s election has seen political discussion get loud. Really loud. As two results that were unpopular with a lot of young people, there has been somewhat of a call to action since. Along with ethical consumerism gaining traction in recent years, it was inevitable that political stances would become enveloped within the trend.

Liberal vs. conservative values – who wins?

A recent survey in the US has indicated that you can guess who people vote for based on what brands they like, further indicating that people care who they’re buying from. This is where things get interesting. According to Sprout Social, more liberals care about their favourite brands’ political stances on issues that matter to them. So if you feel like brands who stand up for conservative values seem to cop more flak publicly, you’re probably right. To further hit home the point, NYU marketing professor Scott Galloway suggests that “companies should explicitly brand themselves as liberal”. This is because 78% of liberals care about what brands publicly stand for, compared to around 52% of conservatives. This may not come as a surprise, given conservatives are known to be more closely aligned to traditional business values, whereas liberals are more susceptible to make emotionally driven decisions.

Why should we believe what they’re saying?

Liberal or conservative aside, taking a stance has proven to give brands an edge on the competition. Silence doesn’t cut it anymore. With that in mind, who’s to say companies won’t just say what they think is the popular opinion in an attempt to gain new customers? After all, 91% of millennials claim that they would change brands based on the causes they are associated with. It’s a delicate issue because brands have to remain consistent with their consumer-base, how they are traditionally perceived, and how appropriate it is for them to make comment on certain issues. Without the correct purpose or contextual knowledge of the issue at hand, it can result in heavy criticism of a brand. This was evident after the release of the infamous Pepsi ad featuring Kendall Jenner which appeared to cash in on and trivialise protest marches, which at the time included the black lives matter movement against police brutality. Us young people might be spoilt and lazy, but we’re not stupid, and we can see through BS.

Things can get ugly, especially on the unsanctioned battlefield that is social media. But if brands are being held accountable for the values they hold I argue that this can only be a good thing. They have the platform to influence people’s views in a positive way, and with the public acting as their arbiters, their standards can be monitored. People want to know who they’re giving their money to, and they have every right to. Apathy and ignorance towards important social issues only encourage these discussions to be put on the back-burner and delay the solution. Large and influential brands have a corporate social responsibility to promote and maintain and as consumers we hold the power.

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