My completely unscientific research tells me that the most talked-about Super Bowl ad this year was for Jeep, featuring an extremely rare commercial appearance by Bruce Springsteen. In it, there is no mention of Jeep’s features and benefits, and barely any shots of the vehicle at all. Instead, we hear The Boss pleading for Americans to meet ‘in The Middle’, in what is effectively a reworking of the campaign ad he made for Joe Biden. It’s an ad not for a product or a brand, but for a set of values.
Once upon a time, there was a very clear line between politics and business, and few brands or companies would dare to step over or blur that line, and fought shy of engaging with ‘controversial’ issues, lest they alienate a proportion of their audience.
But those old rules seem not to apply anymore, and brands are increasingly wading into the political arena, taking a stand and making their voices heard on issues ranging from the environment, to gun violence, to racial justice and LGBTQ+ rights. Why? What has changed that suddenly makes it a good idea to align a brand with such causes, when for decades the prevailing wisdom was to remain ‘neutral’?
It’s not so sudden
The first thing to say is, this is not a sudden shift. It’s tempting to view everything through the lens of the moment in which we find ourselves, and look at this issue in the context of the reactions to last month’s attempted coup at the US Capitol (let’s call it what it was), or, going back a little further, the racial justice demonstrations sparked by the police murder of George Floyd. But actually this is a phenomenon that tracks back a few years, at least, with some of the world’s biggest consumer brands leading the way.
In 2018, Chip Bergh, the CEO of Levi Strauss, pledged $1 million to groups working to end gun violence, predictably infuriating the NRA and their ilk. The same year, Coca-Cola challenged homophobia in Brazil, where the expression “that Coke is a Fanta” is a derogatory term for gay people. Coca-Cola, which sells a lot of both brands in Brazil and all over the world, decided to make it clear where it stood, and to commemorate International LGBT Pride Day, they put Fanta into Coke cans.
Before that, even, Colin Kaepernick first took a knee during the playing of the National Anthem, to protest police violence against people of color, back in 2016. Traditionally, brands do not like it when their ambassadors are embroiled in any kind of controversy, and sports brands want their ambassadors to, you know, be playing sports. But Nike really leaned into the controversy, believing that to do so said something about their brand, but also about the views and beliefs of their core audience. After an initial hit, Nike stocks soared - and so did sales. Nike continues to back Kaepernick to this day, even though he no longer plays in the NFL.
If not new, why is brand purpose on all our minds right now?
So why is it now not only acceptable, but desirable, for brands and corporations to be explicit about where they stand on social, cultural and political issues? I believe there are three key drivers:
- The changing consumer: Research consistently shows that consumers increasingly want and expect brands and corporations to take a stand on social issues, and this is especially true for younger people. Research firm, Kantar, which monitors and tracks this phenomenon, refers to this as ‘brand bravery’, but all the evidence is that this is no longer about being ‘brave’, but about aligning with evolving societal norms. Nike, Coca-Cola and Levis all saw the upside, while brands that are out of tune with the times can quickly find themselves paying a price.
- Increased polarization: There is evidence to suggest that western society is more polarized than it has been in some time, on a multitude of issues. Pew Research tracks this, and consistently finds the United States split down the middle, not just in Party Political terms, but on the economy, climate change, race, international engagement and a host of other areas. Ezra Klein does a much better job of explaining why we’re polarized than I ever could, but the net result for communicators is that it is much harder now than it ever was to try and please everybody - so please, top trying. Pick a side. Pick the side that matters to your consumers and aligns with your brand principles. As our previous examples showed, investors will follow suit.
- The Great Enlightenment: OK, this may be my optimism getting the better of me, but bear with me. Historically, societies tend to be more socially liberal when they can afford it; that is, attitudes change based on how affluent a society is. And although it may not feel like it at times, and is certainly not true for everyone, collectively speaking, as a society we are better off than ever before. Harvard professor, Steven Pinker lays this out in his book, Enlightenment Now, in which he uses data to show huge strides in many areas; we live longer, have more wealth, are safer, and (pandemic aside) are less likely to die from a host of dread diseases than at any time in human history. This makes us better able to think about others, which is why we see a greater embracing of issues of equity, and this being translated into actual policies.
What are the implications of all this for businesses, and for communications professionals? Increasingly, at Clarity we find ourselves engaged in conversations with clients not just about their products or whatever other announcements they have coming up - although these remain important - but about their purpose. Beyond making money for shareholders, that is.
Don’t get me wrong, not every organization needs to put purpose at the heart of their brand communications, but the modern consumer (and investor, and analyst, and journalist, and employee) does have certain expectations about how a corporation behaves, and what its stance is on different areas. Having a policy that says ‘racism is bad’ hopefully isn’t such a hard lift, and for some companies that is enough - but a deeper alignment with a societal issue can add new layers to a brand story.
But watch out. Virtue signalling is real, and as counterproductive as greenwashing. If you are to align your brand or organization with an issue in a meaningful way it needs to be:
- Authentic: You cannot simply attach yourself to an issue, it must spring from irrefutable truths about your brand, your proposition, your stakeholders;
- Followed through on: This is not something to be dipped in and out of; it requires genuine commitment and action.
I wrote recently about this pivot towards purpose as one of the big things to look out for in comms in the year ahead, and I stand by that. And I believe that those that fail to grasp the moment, risk being left behind.
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