- Dan Hearnshaw /
- Insight /
- 22-03-22 /
The problem with brand neutrality
We are seeing a drastic shift from black box to glass box, with consumers increasingly calling for brands to turn themselves inside out. Gone are the days when a brand could control its narrative through careful PR campaigns and vague moral grandstanding – now it’s all about showcasing internal processes, highlighting the people behind the business, and embodying a core set of values.
A 2020 survey revealed that 94% of consumers claim they stay loyal to a transparent brand, with 75% of these respondents stating that they would be happy to pay more for products or services from a brand they believe to be genuine.
The fear of great creative being shot down for being “too political” is slowly but surely dissipating. If anything, the brands standing tall against social and political injustices are those earning the most loyal brand advocates. Anyone who has seen a Nike, Apple or Google ATL campaign from the past five years will already know that. So, what about the brands that haven’t caught the memo – has the act of remaining neutral now become politicised? With the transparency revolution now spreading among us, it looks like those sitting quiet are the ones facing the consequences.
Stand in solidarity
The #DeleteUber campaign is a textbook example of a brand facing scrutiny for not speaking out. In late January 2017, Donald Trump initiated a travel ban on Muslim-majority countries, resulting in widespread protests around all major US airports. Notably, the New York Taxi Workers Alliance stood in solidarity by announcing via Twitter that there would be no pick-ups from JFK airport for one hour on January 28th, 2017. Instead of supporting the movement, Uber continued operating as normal, and even tweeted about surge pricing at the airport.
The news of its negligence spread like wildfire, and within hours #DeleteUber was trending on Twitter. Users weren’t only deleting the app from their phone but were also teaching others how to cancel their accounts indefinitely. In response to the situation, Lyft swiftly announced a $1,000,000 donation to The American Civil Liberties Union and became the ethical alternative for those outraged by Uber’s strike breaking. By remaining neutral during a time of political divide, Uber was accused of prioritising profits over the wellbeing of stakeholders – and lost loyal supporters as a result.
Climate comes first
With climate change becoming one of the most pressing issues we face as a society, the health of the planet should be a key consideration for all organisations, regardless of size. Consumers are, now more than ever, striving to make a positive impact on the world through the purchases they make; eventually the brands who don’t recognise the role they play in climate preservation will be abandoned.
Those making sustainable claims that turn out to be false, however, face a secondary charge of greenwashing. From H&M’s ‘Conscious Collection’ to Ryanair’s low-carbon flights, it is becoming clear that a business can equally lose support by taking a stance without the right action. Yvon Chouinard, founder of outdoor clothing and gear brand, Patagonia, is a pioneer in challenging the way in which we consume. After 70 years’ worth of environmental activism, here are a few more recent initiatives the Patagonia team has been rolling out in 2022:
- They’re taxing themselves. A self-imposed 1% earth tax is used to provide support to environmental non-profits working to protect air, land, and water around the globe.
- They guarantee everything they make. Referred to as the Ironclad Guarantee, if a Patagonia product doesn’t perform to the customer’s expectation, or becomes damaged with signs of wear, they offer a free repair, refund, or replacement.
- They are their own biggest critic. Patagonia is extremely vocal about its staff’s working conditions, site locations, greenhouse gas emissions, levels of non-recyclable waste, and total water usage. They’re the first to hold up their hands, and the first to find a resolution.
It’s one thing offering a sustainable alternative to rival brands, but it’s another thing asking your customers to specifically not buy a second jacket to deter unnecessary over-production. And the people love it. By choosing Patagonia, you’re confidently investing in virtually unbreakable gear, and more importantly, a sustainable future. It’s the ultimate case study for brand activism.
Vigilance is key
More recently, major brands are pledging to support refugees affected by the atrocities of the Russo-Ukrainian war. In events of such gravity, many feel a moral responsibility to step in to provide provisions and care for those involved. Whether that’s Sainsbury’s decision to remove Russian products from online and physical channels, Airbnb offering free short-term housing to 100,000 refugees, or EA Sports removing all Russian and Belarusian national clubs from its video games, many brands have come forward to put action behind their words.
But nuance is also key. In such situations, step one for brands and agencies alike should be to re-examine all outbound communications, including paid advertising and scheduled social media posts, to avoid negligence. Unlike most, a select few global luxury brands appeared reluctant to stop operating in Russia during the early days of the Ukrainian invasion, with the likes of LVMH, Gucci and Marni remaining silent, but still running paid social activity. This decision-making sparked uproar among their non-Russian customers and demonstrates how, sometimes, brands run the risk of polarising certain customer groups, and sacrificing brand affinity, for short-term profitability.
The transparency revolution
With brands more visible to us than ever before, it is no longer possible to stay quiet when it suits them, especially in the realm of social media. Whilst they don’t need to have an opinion on everything, brands need to be aware of what is happening in the wider world and react accordingly. By understanding the issues that are most important to their audience, brands can connect with them on a deeper level. Those winning hearts through activism are the ones that understand their target market, are aware of their past and present company track record and can effectively identify risks that might cause a campaign built around activism to backfire. After all, over 57% of global consumers are more likely to buy from, or boycott, a brand because of its stance on a political or social issue.
Sustainable storytelling and empty pledges are a thing of the past – brands are now rightfully expected to follow through on their words with actions. With greater calls for brands to shed light on their own supply chains, internal culture, and political standpoints, those operating with a closed-door policy are distrusted and scrutinised, whereas those embracing the transparency revolution are the ones coming out on top.
Looking to take the leap from neutrality to activism? We can help. Drop us a line here, and we’ll help take you further.