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    When Brands Take a Stand: What Works and What Doesn’t

    Consumers increasingly want to associate with brands that take a stand on social issues, perhaps even lead the charge towards bettering the world. As market research highlights this trend, it’s natural for many brands to start walking down this path, but results have been mixed. For instance, Nike’s campaign aligned to the Black Lives Matter movement led to a surge in brand engagement, sales, and stock price, but Pepsi’s ad that tried to speak to the same movement faced widespread ridicule and had to be pulled down. 

    Similarly, Coors Light shelved its COVID-19 pandemic-related campaign calling its beer the “Official Beer of Working Remotely” as customers felt it was trivializing the caution advised. Arguably, these are early days in terms of brands taking a clear stance on social issues; it is apparent that no tried and tested formula exists. Creating a brand voice that appeals to the “belief-driven buyer” is much trickier than expected. So, what works and what does not? Let us take a closer look.


    Why Brands Need to Take a Stand

    According to the 2018 Edelman Earned Brand survey, 64% of consumers felt that brands should take the lead in changing for good rather than waiting for governments to effect policy changes. The survey also found that most consumers today are belief-driven buyers, meaning that they choose, switch, avoid, or boycott a brand based on its stand on social issues. This differs from our traditional understanding of consumers – that they place top priority solely on product performance, convenience, or price points. 

    This trend of belief-driven buying is growing across all age groups and major markets across the world. Many consumers believe that it is easier to get responses to their calls for action regarding social change from brands rather than governments. They express these calls both on social media and through their buying behavior. 

    For the brand, social media sentiment analysis shows that tailoring brand voice to talk  about social issues achieves far higher brand advocacy than talking about product features. 

    As consumers become more influenced by beliefs and seek out brands whose messaging resonates with their values, brands will need to decide whether – and how – they will take a stand on specific issues. 

    Authenticity or “Woke Washing”? Consumers Can Tell

    When a business chooses to leverage its brand voice to rally for social change, it must be seen as doing so authentically, otherwise, consumers will be quick to call out the attempt as “woke washing” – the appropriation of progressive thought for advertising, without matching actions. 

    Authenticity must start with the choice of the cause itself. As per the Sprout Social Championing Change in the Age of Social Media study, brands come across as most credible when an issue directly impacts their customers (47%), employees (40%), and business operations (31%). Engaging with an issue for the short term creates the perception of opportunism, so hastily put together products and campaigns are usually destined for failure. 

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    How Your Brand Can Connect With Belief-Driven Buyers

    Let us say you have understood the value system of your target consumers well and have decided to take a position on certain issues. What are the ways by which your brand can get involved? What are the dos and don’ts for each of these ways? Which brands have succeeded or failed going down that route?

    Brand Purpose


    Initiatives, communications, and campaigns which demonstrate that your brand exists for a reason other than profit define your brand purpose.

    Do: Clearly articulate why your brand exists and what specific steps you take to fulfill that purpose.

    Don’t: Do not think of this purely as messaging: remember to evaluate every single day whether your brand exists for the stated purpose.

    This worked for: The Dove campaign, Real Beauty, with its core purpose of “making beauty a source of confidence, not anxiety”, gains authenticity via Dove’s gamut of self-esteem related projects and consistently relevant messaging for over 15 years. This campaign has helped Dove to build a unique brand positioning, communicate a strong core value, win numerous awards, and grow sales.

    This backfired on: The now-bankrupt American pharmaceutical company, Purdue Pharma, was investigated for years by the Drug Enforcement Administration and the press for manufacturing and marketing painkillers that could lead to addiction, besides contributing to what is commonly called ‘the opioid crisis’. When they tweeted in November 2019, “The nation’s opioid addiction crisis is a significant and urgent public health challenge, and Purdue Pharma is deeply concerned about the toll it’s having on individuals and communities.” – the replies to that tweet show that the message is not convincing anyone, and is, in fact, enraging readers.





    When you connect your brand voice to a moment in culture, you take cognizance of an issue that concerns users at this time and make your brand relevant in that context. Such topical issues can be divisive – you risk losing users who do not endorse that cause. 

    Do: Take up causes with which your brand is genuinely connected, and prepare for a negative backlash from customers who do not support the cause.

    Don’t: Do not take on a cause for the short term as that is perceived as opportunism.

    This worked for: Nike. When Black Lives Matter – the movement protesting police brutality targeted at African Americans, was gathering momentum, NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick chose famously to “take a knee” rather than stand while the US national anthem was played as a mark of protest against racism and police brutality. During those emotionally charged days, Nike released an ad featuring Kaepernick with the words, “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything”.

    A number of critics including President Donald Trump said that Kaepernick had disrespected the flag and his country. As a result, some consumers who were upset with Nike destroyed their Nike-branded apparel and aired their feelings on social media.

    In spite of this negative backlash from some sections, the campaign resonated with a large number of their users and ultimately benefited Nike tremendously. Online engagement surged, leading to growth in sales and an increase in their share value. The campaign is credited with adding $6 billion to Nike’s market value as well as earning them an Emmy nomination.

    Nike has signed brand endorsement deals with hundreds of African American athletes over the years due to which this cause was seen as being deeply connected to the brand. It was also seen as a willingness to take a financial risk and take a stand based on values.

    This backfired on: Pepsi too tried to connect to the emotions of Black Lives Matter but the ad they created came through as insensitive.  One TV satirist said that it appeared to show a protest march for ‘Attractive Lives Matter’. In the ad, tension between protestors and the police dissipates when Kendall Jenner offers a policeman a can of Pepsi. The brand was blamed for trivializing a serious issue and attempting to benefit from a movement that had no connection with Pepsi.





    Brand activism refers to a business taking action for social, economic, or environmental reform, or confronting a controversial issue, usually by leveraging its brand voice. 

    Do: Select issues that are aligned with your brand’s core values. See that your actions and communications over time support the position. Consider the consequences of your actions on your customers, employees, and other stakeholders. 

    Don’t: Do not forget to evaluate the potential impact of getting involved — both positive and negative.

    This worked for: In the wake of mass shootings at schools, Dick’s Sporting Goods destroyed $5 million worth of assault rifles, turning the guns into scrap metal. The company permanently removed assault rifles from 850 Dick’s, Field & Stream, and Golf Galaxy stores. These moves outraged some and were estimated to have cost the company about $250 million in sales, but the brand was seen as taking action against gun violence and sales have since rebounded. 

    This backfired on: A MasterCard campaign during the 2018 FIFA World Cup caused an outcry for announcing that they would donate 10,000 meals to starving kids in developing countries for every goal scored by Lionel Messi or Neymar da Silva Santos Júnior. Making a game out of hunger was not appreciated and MasterCard was forced to respond to protests by agreeing that they would donate the meals regardless of which players scored. 


    The lessons the above-mentioned brands learned can also help you navigate controversial conversations in which your target audience is involved. People want businesses to use their brand voice and resources to drive change in ways that individuals cannot. Brands who participate in responsible and effective ways gain by building longer-lasting relationships with consumers. 

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