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Vox pop: How to defend brand image in a world of values

By Chris Sutcliffe, Senior reporter

Way To Blue


The Drum Network article

This content is produced by The Drum Network, a paid-for membership club for CEOs and their agencies who want to share their expertise and grow their business.

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November 11, 2019 | 16 min read

Brands are increasingly being pressured to take a stand on cultural issues, though the challenges that come with this are sometimes rather tricky. How are agencies adapting to this need to promote a brand’s values while protecting its image? We asked our Drum Network members to take us through how they're grappling with this fundamental issue.


/ Oleg Laptev

Dan Spry

Dan Spry, social and content manager, Three Whisky

If your brand has a legacy of indifference to political or environmental issues, acknowledge your past by announcing your cleaner vision for the future and hold a light to the actions your taking to decrease the impact on the environment. Remember, this shouldn’t be a commercial opportunity, it’s chance for your brand to take a position and announce your values.

It’s tempting for brands to jump on socially conscious causes without much thought. Review your company’s history on the subject and make sure any claims are consistent with previous or current actions, because there are customers who will sniff out what a bandwagon jump in heartbeat.

For example, as environmental issues become more pressing and the pressure from customers to reduce waste is becoming more common, it’s not enough to simply say your brand wants to save the planet. It’s tempting to jump on the eco-bandwagon, but before you do it’s important that you properly assess your brands current impact on the planet. What initiatives are in place to help reduce your carbon footprint? Does your brand even have an environmental initiative? Because if you don’t, you better be prepared for someone to publicly call you out on it.

Isabel Maguire

Isabel Maguire, consultant, The Clearing

Belief-driven consumers seek out belief-driven brands.

73% of people think that companies should do more than just offer a product or service. That means that a brand’s beliefs, or lack thereof, are a key factor that determines whether we spend our money with that brand or another.

We want brands to take a stand on cultural issues. It’s how we know that we can trust them. Brands that prefer to keep silent might as well carry a banner that says: “We test on animals, while dodging taxes and sipping from single-use plastic straws! Jared Leto was the best Joker!” So, yes: espousing a point of view might be risky. But brands have more to lose in silence than in speaking out.

As an agency, we know just how important it is to have a point of view. People want brands to engage in these conversations so that they can communicate their values. We’re not here to make beer pink or slap rainbows on products for the sake of it. Meaningful conversations take some serious legwork.

It’s not sexy, but the key is that we do our homework. We believe that comments on cultural issues can’t be made in a boardroom-vacuum. Brands should talk to and consult with the communities they serve. Not just to keep abreast of the issues we care about – but to help elevate and move the conversation on. As a brand, how is your point of view on those issues different? Why is it worth hearing?

Last year, 82% of people agreed that they are looking to connect with brands that have a lasting, positive impact on the world. It’s time for your brand to stand up for what it believes in and stand out from the crowd – and build a Clear Defendable Territory in the minds of your customer.

Neil Kleiner

Neil Kleiner, managing director, UK Way To Blue

In this time of perhaps the worst political and environmental uncertainty our industry has ever existed in, we must urge our clients to be more than just their products or services. This is even true on social marketing platforms where brand monologues are still ineffective compared to brand conversations. CSR should no longer be a self-contained marketing function but should be the heart of all marketing and communications.

What clients say is important, but what clients do is vital. This admittedly comes with challenges and they are best mitigated by the confluence of brave clients, great agency creative and fantastic consumer research.

It also happens by agencies being braver about the types of clients we work with.

The leaked transcript of an internal Ogilvy meeting regarding their work the US border control made painful reading and highlights a key issue that agencies face. There have been several high profile brands asking to see agency credentials on diversity and gender pay gap (as they should), but we as agencies should equally not be afraid to ask difficult questions of our clients and not follow fee over our own beliefs or the beliefs of the people, the human beings, behind the agency.

Ryan Foley

Ryan Foley, head of content, ROAST

We live in an age where access and availability are at an all-time high. The result of this for brands is that it’s harder now than ever to survive and stand out.

It’s no wonder then that when we can’t discern any real difference, we look for something that means more to us. It’s in these very moments, brands are under increasing pressure to not only do more but be more.

This is a tricky space to be in and brands are struggling to decide what they should or shouldn’t stand for and how they want to be perceived. This is where the traditional idea of a brands role has been shifting and agencies are having to adapt.

It’s a difficult thing for brands to adapt in this way because they are almost trying to keep the plane flying while changing the wings and destination. The risk of getting this process wrong is, of course, catastrophic for brands. So, the question is not how do you change the wings and pick a direction, it’s how do you land the brand in the right place safely?

What seems obvious to me is that we are not loyal to brands at all, we are only loyal to the ideas they represent. Think of the difference between Nike and Converse. They essentially do the same thing in that they make footwear, but as brands they mean something different to us. In the same vein as form follows function, the brands we choose proceed from the ideas we hold.

We recently helped launch a new brand called Maiiro, who have a range of sustainable skincare products. After spending some time with the brand, we discovered their products are all created with rejuvenation in mind. We used this as a driving force to create a campaign called Pack of Lies, aimed at rejuvenating the skincare industry. The campaign sheds light on the industry’s plastic recycling and calls for increases in plastic reduction. Asking skincare brands to be completely transparent about exactly how much plastic they’ve reduced from their own supply chains.

In my experience agencies need to really work with brands to find out what is really true about them and how people see these truths. Once you’ve made those connections, you can use them to create something with real value and interest for their audiences while remaining culturally relevant.

Emilie Van Hoof

Emilie Tabor, co-founder, Influencer Marketing Agency

The cultural shift that is happening is a direct result of social media and the availability of information. People are searching for truths in brands and want brands to be more than just a brand - they want them to be a part of their lives.

Within influencer marketing this is even more evident, where to succeed brands need to be able to give an influencer the control over the way in which they portray the brand. Influencer marketing only works when influencers are given freedom to connect to their audience in the same manner they always have, before they were even 'influencers'. It needs to feel genuine, it needs to feel authentic.

So great care needs to be taken to protect a brand's image. Connecting to the wrong influencer can be extremely damaging. In this sense it is of the most vital importance that you understand the person behind the Instagram feed and what motivates them. Within IMA, we have a full dedicated team trained thoroughly in understanding these nuances of influencers.

Although what is even more evident on social media is that if a brand uses influencers to promote say, gender equality, but the brand doesn’t live and breathe it within the organisation, it will eventually be found. Hence, it is imperative to identify the potential risks on both sides of the collaboration, this is also the value of using an intermediary agency to ensure that they can provide the right strategy to ensure the best results.

Rob Mathie

Rob Mathie, founder, On The One

Purpose and profit sometimes make uneasy bedfellows and their paring can make for a lot of consumer cynicism around brands that can - unfortunately - get in the way of good work being done in this space.

I’m a believer in that the best work done in Purpose is found in the margins - brands that chart new territories or challenge taboos play a powerful role in shaping inclusion and acceptance in today’s culture. Disney’s Magical Pride in Paris and Bodyform’s destigmatisation of menstruation campaign #BloodNormal are two perfect examples.

Through our work with LGBT communities, we’ve naturally become more aware of brands looking to participate around Pride Month, albeit mainly on a surface level. LGBT logos on social profiles may seem like a bare minimum, but the backlash around Barclays’s rainbow banking app icon demonstrate that putting Pride over prejudice requires increasingly bold moves in representation.

When Smirnoff challenged us to use their position as leaders in nightlife culture to better the lives of the LGBT community we decided the best thing to do was to actively listen. After speaking with many charities and activists we settled on working with LGBT Foundation. Quite quickly, they told us that the power to drive that change should actually come from within - Smirnoff’s relationships with media, talent, bartenders and venues were the key to resolving the tensions they’d unearthed e.g. a rise in LGBT hate crimes. Everything from street safety patrols to LGBT inclusivity training added up to a triple-win for consumers, corporate and commercial stakeholders.

However, it’s more important that brands consistently re-evaluate the scale of their platforms and the potential to affect societal change. For example, we’ve been speaking with LGBT charity All Out who specialise in grassroots activism in markets where the LGBT community are actively persecuted by the state. What role could brands play in changing the world there? These are the kind of (perhaps uncomfortable) conversations that agencies should be having with brands in 2020.

Michael solo

Michael Scantlebury, director and founder, Impero

First off, brands should be good citizens. They shouldn’t fu@k the oceans. They shouldn’t use child labour. They should take responsibility for their actions. They should do nothing they would not want to read in the press. And it’s not because it’s too hard to hide these days. Or because everyone’s got a camera. It’s not about making a stand; it’s about not being dicks.

If they decide to take a stance on something beyond just being a good citizen then that’s great. Let’s do it! Let’s put our money where our mouths are. Let’s use our power for good.

But our advice is simple. Whatever you say, remember to prove it. It’s the world’s most simple strategy to becoming an authentic brand. If you make a claim or take a stand, follow that up with real-world actions that prove it. Otherwise, it’s not a stand, it’s just a message and not a very good or impactful one.

And if you don’t want to make a stand, maybe it’s not your place. That’s absolutely fine. You don’t need to. Red Bull is a brand in growth, but I’ve never seen it make a stand on much. It doesn’t need to. Countless other brands are the same.

Not every brand needs a purpose or a stance. In fact, very few do. It’s one option (and often a very good option!) you can take that will help make your brand become famous. But if you’re authentic about who you are, there’s plenty of ways to do that.

Rebecca Tredget

Rebecca Tredget, head of content, Brass

It’s a tricky subject, and moving so quickly that my opinion changes daily. One minute you’ll see the Unilever CEO asking consumers to call them out on social issues, then a few hours later some brand is getting slaughtered for their LGBT sandwich (fair).

There are five things that brands need to think about before taking a stand on cultural issues:

1. Brand values aren’t new. Remember the dreaded letters “CSR”, aka creative kryptonite? That’s what this is; the industry has just rebranded it to be the sexier “brand values”. It isn’t a new way to market, you’re probably already doing it and you should have a chat with that CSR Officer you always used to avoid.

2. Listen to diverse voices. You don’t have intimate knowledge of a social issue because you read a Vice article on it. Speak to people that are affected by the issues and respect their opinion. Maybe then we can all avoid a Pepsi v2 situation.

3. Be authentic. Some brands have a heritage in value-led advertising, but what if your brand doesn’t? How can you be authentic when you don’t have that? Put your money where your mouth is. Going to rainbow up your product? Please support LGBTQIA charities with money and resources. Letting everyone know that you use boat transportation to avoid excess pollution? Please consider eco-friendly packaging that isn’t going to end up in one of Sir David’s plastic landfill photos. It has to work both ways. If you want to benefit then you don’t get to ignore when it might end up costing you £££s.

4. Ask if it is a campaign. Purpose led marketing isn’t a campaign, nor is it your annual marketing plan. It’s an ongoing position that should be carried through year on year, not just when the new brand manager has a personal interest in reducing plastic waste.

5. Be wary. If you have any skeletons in your closet then you will be called out. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go ahead (I mean, what brand doesn’t have skeletons?) but be prepared that you’re going to get some negative backlash, and you might have to ride that wave before seeing any benefits.

Finally, don’t kid yourself this isn’t a marketing trend – know the difference between that (and don’t do it) or a conscious change in brand positioning that will require longevity, consistency and resource (not limited to money, time and effort).

Ryan Kutscher

Ryan Kutscher, co-founder and chief creative officer, Circus Maximus

This is a big topic of conversation with our brand partners. Probably the biggest example that comes to mind in recent years has been Pride. Nearly every brand has a pride message ready to go now. My take is that on the flip side is that you can risk looking like an opportunist or bandwagon jumper. Success here is about brands and agencies partnering on a deeper level that goes beyond advertising and into strategic narrative.

For us, that's the process of identifying and mapping our business partners' core values and those of their customers to find the overlap. It's a combination of cultural research, consumer intel, social listening and tracking, brand sentiment analysis, and so on to develop that deep sense of the brand identity.

When you do that, the cultural moments sort themselves out, because we've been proactive about knowing what conversations we might ever want to be a part of. You're not wondering if an issue is something we should have a perspective on. It's baked in, in a sense. Executionally, it's also about having all of our team on the same page to take advantage of these moments quickly with speedy production. Which is why we're always on slack, or texting our clients. "Hey, did you see this? Hey, this just happened, what if we did this?"

You probably get a few hours, not a few days. So it's a combination of being proactive about our brand and reactive when the opportunity knocks. Also, you don't have to try so hard on every opportunity. With more and more brands jumping in, there's a sense that you have to be involved. You want to make sure you don't pull a muscle trying to win the internet on a given day.


Content by The Drum Network member:

Way To Blue

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