(Brand) identity politics

Earlier this month, the United States celebrated Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. It was an event with heightened resonance at a time when issues of inequality of all sorts are topping the news agenda worldwide.

There was plenty of editorial coverage of the occasion but brands were also willing to make statements of their own. For example, Apple turned over its landing page to a large image and quote from Dr King.

Elsewhere on the web, Nike had a high-profile campaign under the slogan ‘Until we all win’. Under the heading of ‘What we stand for’, they declared: “Nike believes in the power of sport to move the world forward. We strive to break down barriers, bring people together, and inspire action.”

You might think that getting on board with this sort of thing should be straightforward choice but it can be a minefield – as Hope Bertram points out in Adweek.  And for a risk-averse executive, it’s an easy choice to bypass such touchpoints for fear of being the one to blunder publicly. Just stick to business as usual.

However, it may be getting more difficult to swerve political issues of the day. A recent study from Sprout Social shows that a majority (66%) of US consumers now expect brands to adopt stances on social and political issues.

They hold them accountable too. Uber’s corporate culture has drawn its fair share of public criticism in recent times but when its surge pricing model saw the company appearing to cash in on post-election protests in the US, customers saw it as the last straw. Some 200,000 users were reported to have deleted the app, forcing then CEO Travis Kalanick to resign his position on Trump’s tech advisory council and the company itself establish a sizeable fund to help drivers potentially impacted by new US immigration policy. While never making a public statement on the matter, they were seen as complicit in and exploitative of unpopular public policy through their actions.


 

Others were perhaps watching and handled the political moment differently. At one end of the scale, Coca-Cola responded by condemning the travel ban and rerunning an old campaign that left nobody in doubt as to their views At the other end (and with admittedly less to lose), Cards Against Humanity went several steps further by buying up land in order to actively obstruct the administration’s proposed border wall. 

A key challenge in branding has always been to find a way to imbue the public-facing parts of a business with a personality that its customers might recognize and identify with. A degree of cynicism in the face of hollow sloganeering is nothing new but with the propelling force of social media behind them, consumers are able to collectively demand that the identities that companies adopt are more than just a veil of social responsibility.

In going beyond the slogans, content marketers can be placed squarely on the front line with this trend but what does this mean in a practical sense? Surely the answer should be an ever-closer working relationship between agency and client. Businesses need to consider where their customers will expect them to take a stance and robustly examine their own positioning to see where they might be seen to fall short. Agencies for their part must have their clients’ trust and engage in ongoing dialogue with clients over which causes to make a stand on and which to leave for others to take up. As ever, it comes down to brand authenticity, knowing one’s audience and treating them with respect.