Log into any social media platform, and you’ll interact with political messages — whether you intend to or not. In today’s highly politicized society, brands must think critically about how they fit in, especially when ambivalence is no longer an option.
Consider that according to Accenture Strategy, more than 60% of consumers think it’s important for brands to take a stand on social, environmental, cultural and political issues. And the “2018 Edelman Earned Brand” report found that 64% of consumers are “belief-driven buyers,” meaning they express their values through their purchasing habits.
But while a growing number of consumers want brands to participate in political discourse, that doesn’t necessarily mean all brands are doing it well. In fact, the same Edelman report found that most people (56%) don’t feel brands are spending enough time talking about the issues they care about. And research from Kantar Consulting discovered that many Americans, especially those who belong to minority groups, feel ignored by brands.
To close the gap between brands and consumers, you need to position your brand in a way that creates a sense of belonging — where people recognize themselves, feel understood and believe that they own a bit of the brand narrative they’re buying into. You can do this by speaking out on the issues that consumers care about most and that tie back to your brand values.
Embracing the moment
Burger King’s stand on net neutrality offers a great example of how brands can enter political discourse. Net neutrality is a complicated issue to understand, and Burger King wanted to do its part in educating customers. Rather than publish a long-form blog post detailing the intricacies of net neutrality, however, it used a burger-centric stunt to simulate the effect of insufficient net neutrality protections.
Customers could either pay more to receive their burgers in a reasonable amount of time or they could pay the regular price and wait longer. This demonstration worked because it took a clear stance, contextualized a confusing issue and aligned with Burger King’s mission to welcome its customers on equal terms.
“We believe the internet should be like Burger King restaurants, a place that doesn’t prioritize and welcomes everyone,” said Fernando Machado, global CMO of Burger King. “That is why we created this experiment, to call attention to the potential effects of net neutrality.”
Even still, most brands proceed with extreme caution where politics are concerned. It makes sense: Speaking out on the wrong issues at the wrong time can further alienate consumers, but, so, too can keeping quiet. So how should your brand position itself within the political conversation?
Here are three steps to help you determine what to speak about, summon that fire to drive meaningful change and find a way to demonstrate that passion in a way that serves and inspires.
1. Think back to Your brand principles
Strong brands are built upon a set of unifying principles. Make it a priority to go back to the genesis of your brand and reflect those principles in every consumer touchpoint. Brands that stay true to their original values are more likely to craft a community to which customers want to belong.
Take Patagonia, for example. The brand, no stranger to political discourse, took perhaps one of its boldest stands last year – protesting corporate tax cuts. The cuts actually benefitted the company financially but fundamentally opposed its brand principles. So Patagonia put its money where its mouth is and donated its share of the tax cut to climate change research and initiatives, prioritizing values over profits.
Experiential marketing is a powerful tactic in purpose-driven messaging, as it allows brands to underscore their values in tangible ways and insert themselves in the conversation. Patagonia, for instance, embarked on a cross-country tour in a biodiesel-converted Dodge truck to repair used clothing, aligning with its mission to “build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, and use business to protect nature.”
Similarly, American Express lives out its mission to promote diversity and inclusion through its long-standing commitment to the LGBTQ community. In 2016, the brand celebrated the first anniversary of the Supreme Court’s landmark decision to legalize gay marriage by launching its “Express Love” campaign. Leveraging experiential marketing, Amex immersed its audience in pride parade float activations, consumer giveaways and influencer events in 11 different markets between June and November.
Your brand’s values were created for a reason, so ask yourselves again: Why does your brand exist, and who does it serve?
2. Tune into cultural conversations
Staying well-versed on trending topics is crucial if you’re going to send the message to customers that you truly care. If you jump into a conversation too late or miss a vital part of the discourse that changes your argument, you could lose your authority. Influencers can give brands a huge shot of credibility in the landscape of ever-changing cultural conversations — but it’s important that brands partner with the right influencers.
Consider the recent partnership between actress and activist Jameela Jamil and Aerie. Jamil is very outspoken about body positivity and inclusivity, and in the past, she hasn’t shied away from calling out celebrities and brands for normalizing toxic weight-loss rhetoric.
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So excited to announce that I am an #aerierolemodel and got to stand next to so many women I love and admire at our completely un-retouched shoot! @Aerie is the first company I have seen dedicate so much energy to inclusion and representation on their website and in their stores, and that is something I myself am constantly fighting for. @i_weigh is a LIFE positive movement, and this campaign reflects exactly that. People of different shapes and sizes coming together as we are to celebrate each other. ❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️ #aeriepartner @simonesiegl @hairbystephaniepohl
Similarly, Aerie has built a reputation as a brand that advocates for body positivity. In 2014, it pledged to stop retouching models; more recently, the brand began featuring models who range in size, race, ability, and age. Given their similar interests, a partnership between Aerie and Jamil makes perfect sense, and Jamil was recently featured in an Aerie campaign that includes unretouched images.
Even specific cultural dialogues such as this one can spark an emotional response and make your brand something consumers want to identify with, and having influencers who double as activists on board can boost the credibility and emotional reach of your message.
3. Inject empathy into every interaction
Empathy is a powerful asset in driving brand loyalty: The more empathetic your approach to consumer interactions, the more fresh, valuable, and effective your work will be perceived by belief-driven buyers.
When three Harvard Business School researchers conducted a study on racial discrimination in the gig economy in 2016, they found their Airbnb guest applications were 16% less likely to be accepted when they created user profiles under common African-American names. When the findings gained steam, patrons of color began sharing stories backing up this claim with the #AirbnbWhileBlack hashtag on Twitter.
Rather than deny the allegations and double down on damage control, Airbnb responded to the complaints of discrimination with empathy. It established the “Open Doors” policy, which guarantees assistance in finding accommodations for users who feel they have been discriminated against in the booking process.
When it comes to taking a stand on social and political issues, there’s more to be gained from speaking out than staying silent — but make sure you do it the right way. By listening, empathizing and remembering the values that inspired your brand, you can add a meaningful voice to the cultural conversation.
Brett Hyman is the president of NVE Experience Agency, a world-class experience marketing agency and event production company guided by the principle that the right moment will transform someone forever.