Should brands take a stand on political and social issues?

Following the shock of Brexit and the divisive election of Donald Trump, there is no question that we are living in polarised times, providing both dangers as well as opportunities for brands.

On the one hand, if brands take a stance, they risk losing part of their audience. But in not taking a stance, brands could be accused of having no 'heart' or integrity. So how important is it for brands to demonstrate their stance on social issues?

The recent Pepsi/Kendall Jenner ad backlash that caused Pepsi to swiftly remove the ad and apologise seems to be a prime example of a brand trying to demonstrate a political stance and failing. Pepsi’s ad appeared to make light of political marches, and suggest social movements' needs can be solved with a soft drink. In today’s world, with politics at the forefront of the social agenda, and millenials often at the forefront of that, consumers want to see that such issues are handled more sensitively, if at all, by brands such as Pepsi.

Interestingly, a recent survey asked Americans how their opinion of Pepsi changed after watching the advert. It found that 44% of people had a more favourable view of the company after watching the ad, while only a quarter had a less favourable view. The survey also revealed that 32% of respondents said the ad made them more likely to buy Pepsi products, versus 20% who were less likely. Considering the immediate apparent backlash and the findings of this study, the notion that we live in polarised times is apparent.

In a similar vein, recently, a YouGov survey stated that of those who stopped using a brand following adverse headlines, as many as two-thirds (67%) have not returned to it. With wildly differing consumer opinions, no wonder brands often struggle to hit the right mark.

However, brands are moving from being bystanders to activists, by leveraging powerful imagery to market campaigns for peace and tolerance, despite the possible alienation of customers. According to a recent survey by Shutterstock on brand marketers in the UK, concerns around representing modern society outweighed the need to fit well with brand messaging when selecting marketing images. Marketers are now choosing to use images of homosexual couples (79%), racially diverse people (71%) and non-traditional families (66%) in attempts to represent modernity over traditional brand positioning.

Equally some companies are willing to raise divisive political issues, even if this means putting their sales on the line. Kellogg Company pulled its ad spend from one of the largest conservative media outlets in America, Breitbart News Network, citing differences in values during the 2016 US election and igniting a news bashing battle. Toy giant Lego did something similar with the Daily Mail following the newspaper’s ‘hate-funding’ headlines during the Brexit debate, that promoted 'demonisation and division' by 'creating distrust of foreigners and blaming immigrants for everything'. And for Starbucks, taking a stand by criticising Trump backfired with conservatives dominating Twitter with the hashtag #BoycottStarbucks, though there isn’t any evidence it hurt Starbucks.

Another YouGov survey revealed that two thirds of US adults support boycotting brands over politics. Therefore, brands need to show they care about the same issues as their consumers, but be warned that it’s going to take more than a Pepsi to fix the world. Brands need to show they’re taking these issues seriously or face the backlash like Pepsi has.

Siding with Trump, for instance, hasn't worked in the favour of sports brands Under Armour and New Balance. Under Armour chief executive Kevin Plank declared that Donald Trump was "a real asset for the country" and then had to clarify his remarks to stem criticism. And after appearing to demonstrate support for Trump's trade plans, New Balance was subjected to people filming themselves burning its trainers and derided the brand 'The Official Shoe of White People’.

On the opposing side, Airbnb has made a visible stand by criticising Trump in an advert stating "acceptance starts with all of us", and showing its support for post-Brexit London by using the #LondonIsOpen campaign to offer free housing to Syrian refugees.

It’s evident that brands are getting involved and taking some sort of stance on important political and social issues, but with a hefty fifth (21%) of UK consumers now boycotting brands following a scandal or negative press, brands must tread carefully and importantly have an authentic voice in any debate.

Nick Flynn is SVP, enterprise sales and account management at Shutterstock

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