Politics Before Profits: When Brands Take Sides

Brand activism is on the rise, with a new generation of socially-conscious consumers driving values-based purchases.

Politics Before Profits:  When Brands Take Sides

Open Instagram and you may, depending on the personalities and brands you follow, see rainbows splashed across your feed all June. Pride month is upon us and as the LGBTQ community is out celebrating in full force, so are many brands throwing their colours behind the cause.

Converse has stepped up its support with a capsule collection of Chucks and apparel painted with Pride. DKNY’s also got a capsule collection of rainbow-festooned clothing and accessories. Marc Jacobs Beauty has rolled out six shades of Pride-themed lip gloss in limited-edition rainbow packaging. Absolut has celebrated the spirit of Pride since the 1980s and this year’s Rainbow Edition features brush strokes of the Pride flag screen-printed on its glass bottles of vodka. Even Ikea has joined the party with a rainbow version of its classic blue bag in the US. And H&M has placed transgender actress Laverne Cox (Orange Is the New Black) front and centre of its “Stay True, Stay You” campaign for Pride 2019. 

The idea of brands taking a stand on social issues is nothing new, but its sudden ubiquity has certainly spiked in recent times.

In the past, companies tended to err on the side of caution, avoiding publicly engaging in political conversations for fear of courting controversy or even finding themselves on the wrong side of history down the road.

But that’s all been flipped on its head of late.

So, what’s driving the recent spate of brands and their influence seeping into the sphere of politics?

A political climate that has grown increasingly tense since Trump took office three years ago could be one factor that’s causing the clapback. The U.S. President’s divisive policies on everything from immigration to his contradictory stance on LGBTQ rights continue to seed discord and create chasms in a nation that’s growing ever more divided.

Just last week, for example, the “Leader of the Free World” issued an explicit ban forbidding U.S. embassies around the world to fly the Pride flag this month; a tradition that has gone on for years each June.

Now the flag has come to be a symbol of not just gay rights, but one of diversity and inclusion, too. These are values at the core of the most progressive brands in today’s marketplace, and they are refusing to take such an affront sitting down.

Instead, they’re standing up and speaking out not just for the marginalised; they’re asserting their own value systems in accordance with their perceived responsibility to society.

Of course, there’s also the business argument – and criticism – that these companies are just trying to cash in on the pink dollars of its liberal-leaning fans.

Whichever the case may be, it’s a strategy that is finding resonance with “belief-based consumers”.

A ‘Woke’ Generation of Socially-Conscious Consumers

According to an Edelman Earned Brand study released late last year, these belief-based consumers now make up the majority across markets. Up to 64 per cent of consumers worldwide will, in fact, make a buying decision based on a brand’s social or political position. This propensity was most prevalent amongst those in the 18 to 34 age group (69 per cent) as well as those in the high-income bracket (69 per cent).

Yes, it’s the ‘woke’ generation of millennials, as well as the more well-heeled, who are spurring this spike in social consciousness—and brands are taking both heed and action.

“Brands are now being pushed to go beyond their classic business interests to become advocates,” Richard Edelman, president and CEO of Edelman, said with the release of the report.

Describing the new relationship dynamics between company and consumer, he added: “Purchase is premised on the brand’s willingness to live its values, act with purpose, and if necessary, make the leap into activism.”

Activisim and Ethical Consumption

Brands are also now viewed as community property belonging to customers and other stakeholders and, as such, play an important role as cultural agents with the power to effect change.

Take, for instance, the steady fading of fur from the fashion industry since the early 1990s, when Calvin Klein became one of the first designers to shed the hide from its clothing racks.

A flurry of brands including Gucci, Burberry and Armani has since also succumbed to pressure by lobbyists and animal rights groups, with Prada being the latest to announce it would forego fur from 2020.

Exotic animal skins are next to be nixed. Last year, Chanel became the largest player in the world of luxury to ban alligator and other exotic skins, and UK luxury department store chain Selfridges has just pledged the same ban starting next year, joining the ranks of Vivienne Westwood, Diane von Furstenberg and Victoria Beckham, who have already ceased use of exotic skins in their collections.

Consumers’ growing demand for change has also prompted an enormous shift towards sustainable practices in the sourcing of materials in the jewellery sector. 

Geneva-based luxury watch and jeweller Chopard declared last year that it would only use “ethical gold” in all its creations henceforth, defined as gold originating from artisanal small-scale mines that participate in the Swiss Better Gold Association’s “Fairmined” and “Fairtrade” programmes, as well as those bearing the Responsible Jewellery Council’s “Chain of Custody” certification.

Chopard has promised, as of 2018, that they would only use ethical gold from traceable sources

Tiffany & Co, meanwhile, certifies its diamonds are “conflict free.” Their new diamond source initiative also allows the consumer to track the provenance of every individually-registered diamond back to its country of origin.

For all their efforts, though, there will always be detractors who will question the paradoxical notion of “sustainable luxury”, and relegate such initiatives to being no more than a profit-driven ploy.

Nevertheless, Aarika Lee believes brands “cannot afford to not have a stand” these days.  

Says the popular content creator and brand collaborator whose eco-conscious sensibilities and environmental activism have garnered her much influence in the social media space: “With every other brand expressing their efforts to become more Earth-conscious, you can’t just continue producing products wrapped in tons of unnecessary packaging that are harmful to the environment. If you’re a big brand, there’s no running away from being called out.” 

Tiffany & Co’s diamond source initiative promises greater transparency

Risk vs. Reward

Flirting with politically-charged narratives can be a risky affair, as Colin Kaepernick discovered in 2016, after the former quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers chose to kneel while the U.S. national anthem was played before a game, in protest of racial injustice and police brutality .

Kaepernick subsequently lost his NFL career but then Nike scooped him up for its 30th anniversary “Just Do It” campaign launched last year.

Colin Kaepernick appears in Nike’s ad from 1:17, saying “Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything.”

For brands like Nike, it’s a calculated risk that has to be carefully weighed against the potential reward. They must also be willing to incur the ire of the public, not least of all its own customers.

In the immediate aftermath following the announcement of Kaepernick as the face of the campaign, Nike stock fell 3.17 percent and irate customers posted videos of themselves destroying Nike products on social media, accompanied by the hashtag #JustBurnIt (a clever spin on the brand’s ‘Just Do It’ slogan).

But the upside?

Aligning itself with one of the most polarising sports figures today shores up Nike’s reputation as a bold, risk-taking leader that’s edgy, progressive and hella brave. And you can be sure that any kid in the street cred game is gonna go out and get themselves some Nike gear. Better yet, a Nike jersey with Kaepernick’s name emblazoned on it.

The “gamble” paid off to the tune of a US$6 billion increase in the brand’s overall value from the day of the Kaepernick announcement. And once the dust settled, it was patently apparent that the high-stakes manoeuvre was indeed a stroke of marketing genius. 

Nike’s alignment with the controversial Colin Kaepernick netted them both publicity and profit

Advocacy in the Age of Authenticity

Certainly, the business of political posturing needs to be handled with care, as Pepsi’s misadventure with Kendall Jenner had so woefully illustrated two years ago.

Even slick production and a cool backing track by Skip Marley (grandson of Bob) couldn’t save Pepsi and its video from being so dreadfully vilified online.

The ad, which was promptly pulled from circulation and branded “the worst commercial of all time”, was heavily criticised for appearing to trivialise demonstrations aimed at tackling social justice causes such as the Black Lives Matter movement.

In the video, Jenner is so intrigued by a protest happening on the street outside that it galvanises her to ditch her photo shoot and join the demonstration, which, to be frank, smacked of a feel-good street party instead, no thanks to its Sense8-style treatment and aesthetic.

In the closing scene, Jenner hands a can of Pepsi to a police officer, curiously bereft of riot gear, who takes a sip and smiles at his colleague to which the protestors erupt in cheer – suggesting that a single can of Pepsi is all that’s needed to restore peace and racial harmony.

Pepsi’s disastrous commercial with Kendall Jenner

The company claimed it was “trying to project a global a message of unity, peace and understanding” but insensitive subtext aside, the ad also reeked of inauthenticity.

The trouble with brands trying to tango with cause-based messaging is that it can come across as exploitative, if not crafted well. Audiences today are so savvy they can smell inauthenticity in the five seconds it takes to skip an ad on YouTube.

So, hopping on a trend and appropriating a cultural value that speaks to their target audience – without first establishing legitimacy in the space – is a surefire way for a brand to incite a brutal backlash.

Lee, who has collaborated with brands like Tiffany & Co, Chanel and Converse, agrees: “Customers are becoming more educated and people can smell bullshit easily these days. If you’re in the business of ‘woke capitalism’ and you’re just jumping on a trend without backing it up with actual care at every stage of your business, people are gonna weed that out and hold you accountable – and brands need to be ready for that.” 

A Question of Intent

The lesson for any brand, therefore, is that social movements cannot be commoditised and commercialised simply for profit. The cost of political activism, as we have seen, can wreak havoc on a brand if it enters the arena with questionable intent.

Marketing messages need to be crafted in close alignment with a brand’s mission and values that have been established over time, and not conveniently airbrushed into the narrative in order to attain more airtime. Because as consumers continue to sync their values with their wallets, capitalising on political and ethical consciousness to sell a product just won’t fly in today’s climate.

Given the potential dangers of mixing politics with business, should brands even pick up a political banner to wave in the first place?

For Lee, it’s a resounding “yes”.

“Brands have influence and this gives them a social responsibility to speak up and out for what they believe. They are the mouthpieces for those who do not have the same reach. And influence affects change.”

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