Silence on social issues could be the kiss of death for brands, says UN Foundation marketing chief

Aaron Sherinian, the chief marketing and communications officer for the United Nations Foundation, has warned brands that they can no longer stay silent on global social issues if they want to retain a consumer following borne out of brand love.

Sherinian, who has previously held posts at the Millennium Challenge Corporation and as a foreign service officer at the U.S. Department of State, told The Drum that younger consumers are now demanding that brands start taking action to address issues related to sustainability.

“Silence on social issues could be the kiss of death for brands, especially [if you look at] the way that young customers are engaging with them right now. They're going to vote at the cash register,” he explained.

“They want to know that the big brands that they support in their lives - that are part of their households...that they carry around with them in their pockets - have a stance on what matters to them.”

Sherinian also believes companies looking to stay quiet may soon go from being seen as neutral to being seen as complicit in the world’s problems. Any lack of progress on these could also be blamed on brands too, according to the marketing chief.

“Customers, clients and constituents are not going to read silence anymore as safe,” Sherinian said. “They're going to read silence from brands [and ask]: ‘Why weren't you working on it? Why weren't you telling your story? Why weren't you being accountable?’”

This shift from ambivalence to caring – however surface deep it may be for brands – will be down to the marketers and publicists. Sherinian truly believes that “marketing has already changed the world” and thinks this statement can also be flipped: “A lack of marketing about some of these issues has maybe meant some missed opportunities for us.”

Political will

But the UN itself is not trying to do the hard sell on its Global Goals for Sustainable Development to consumers, nor to the politicians that hold the real power for change. Instead, Sherinian explained, it understands the value of soft power in the form of political will, and plans to harness that in order to invoke change.

“I believe that political will is a two-way street because the policymakers - the heads of government, the parliamentarians, those people who are sitting in the Oval Office or in the boardrooms around the world - they respond to what their people, their constituents or their customers want,” he said.

“So we have to be talking to everyone and that's part of the message of the Global Goals for Sustainable Development. Everyone has a role...We've got to be accountable to the people that we serve.”

In order to talk to "everyone", the organisation is making strides in the digital world. Social media is key to its success, and Sherinian cites Twitter, Facebook and Google Hangouts as platforms that move conversations, innovations and discoveries quickly across both developing and developed nations. Indeed, the UN is also mulling over how best it can use Snapchat to “talk about social issues”.

Aside from social media, the not-for-profit believes forming partnerships will be vital to getting the Global Goals ticked off by 2030. This has been demonstrated no more so than with the Common Ground initiative.

Sparked by WPP’s Sir Martin Sorrell and launched to the creative industry on the final day of Cannes Lions 2016, the pact has challenged the Big Six holding companies to each take a goal and look to incorporate it into their brand campaigns, as well as their everyday practices.

“In the development space and the international policy space, a lot of times we think that we can't - or shouldn't - be talking to people who market for a living,” said Sherinian.

“But we're seeing that break down finally. We believe that if you're going to get some of these global goals accomplished, we’ve got to work with the people who are very good at changing behavior. And that's [the marketing] community.”

The crux of the matter is that the UN wants to up its “storytelling” game. And, as Sherinian puts it: “Who better to do that with than people who do it for a living?

"Whether it be Madison Avenue, whether it be the community in Cannes, or whether it be the folks who are at South by Southwest in Austin, we've got to be bringing these issues to them and helping them see how it works for their clients.”

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