A marketer's conundrum: Take sides or remain neutral?

JWT Atlanta's US Marines ad

Following the events in Charlottesville, people, now more than ever, are seeking leaders who are prepared to stand up and speak out about the injustices that are plaguing society.

However, the intersection of branding and politics can be tricky territory to navigate, particularly for business leaders; let’s not forget Pepsi’s major faux pas.

But where does that leave marketers?

Traditionally, advertisers have typically relied (perhaps lazily) on marketing approaches by which brands are promoted through a lens of idealized lives. They create an idyllic fantasy world and then invite consumers to picture themselves living the dream.

Arguably, there is no place for this approach to marketing in the contemporary world. We live in an era in which people feel genuinely fearful about what lies ahead and the massive geopolitical, technological and cultural shifts they have no power to control.

Marketing is no longer the transactional-oriented approach it once was. Consumers are now belief-driven and see the brands they use as an extension of who they are as individuals. They expect brands to use their power and might to fight the good fight and they view brands that fail to take a stance with a jaundiced eye.

However, it is extremely difficult for marketers to decide when to take a stand. Regardless of what is going on in the political and social landscape, businesses exist to produce a return for stakeholders. If a mistimed show of solidarity or ill-received alignment with a political cause has disastrous implications for a brand, the organization will no longer be in a position to exert any sort of influence anyway.

So should brands be taking 'sides'? Or should brands remain neutral parties?

From a professional standpoint, it's not only my job to counsel and support my clients on these issues, but to be the true consultants to our brand clients on whether they should or shouldn’t wade into these conversations.

When approaching this dilemma, these actions should be at the top of our agendas:

Depict life as it is now

Earlier this year we developed the first female-led ad for the US Marines. This campaign wasn’t an exercise in political correctness; it reflected reality. There are women in combat now and we have to normalize it. That's what life really looks like in the present; we just haven't depicted it before in advertising. The more it's the norm, the less it's an issue. We need to get better at depicting real life, and that has to start with exposing the truth in raw and real terms. For now, relatable trumps aspirational.

Remain neutral

Brands should be neutral until doing so becomes untenable; that is, until remaining neutral is the equivalent of going against their fundamental beliefs and values.

We’ve seen quite a few examples of the latter in recent months with big name after big name leaving President Trump's advisory councils, citing a conflict between their own values and that of the leader of the establishment as the primary reason why. These individuals recognized only too clearly that failure to take a stand can result in a backlash that seriously undermines an organization’s bottom line. The reality is this: Every brand wants to be sure they’re serving all Americans; none wants to be seen to pick sides.

When should you finally take a stand?

If brands do decide to take a stand, they need to very carefully and strategically assess how doing so will fit with their business objectives and company values. So, figure out ways to help people contribute to actions that have a meaningful impact — and make sure it’s not overly onerous. From a brand standpoint, you should contemplate how taking a stand will impact how you do business. Answer a very important question: Did you create a business to be just financially successful or also impactful?

Contemporary brands need to act as real-life partners, not conveyers of whimsical dreams. And agencies should be the trusted advisors and consultants that help these brands manage the delicate balance between taking a stance on something consumers value and protecting the brand (and balance sheet).

After all, what’s the point in taking a stand if you can’t remain standing?

Vann Graves

Vann Graves is chief creative officer at JWT Atlanta.

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