Brands, Activism, What is real & Who to trust
For the past few weeks, there has been a global outcry over the brutal killing of George Floyd, and several other unjustifiable attacks on black lives in America. Grueling acts of racism witnessed by the black community at large has sparked an uprising marked by both peaceful and violent protests, as well as open dialogue about race – a topic that is often swept under the carpet.
Lately, it seems as though brands have been pushed to speak about race more than they have ever been required to in the course of their existence. For some brands, difficult conversations such as race relations, injustice, and inequality often come quite naturally. Take Nike for example, in September 2018, Nike released a controversial commercial featuring former NFL quarterback, Colin Kaepernick who helped launch the movement to take a knee during the national anthem in a bid to protest racial inequality and police brutality in America. This wouldn’t be the first time that Nike has used their ad to make a social statement. When the recent protests began, Nike once again openly took a stand against racism with their ‘Don’t Do It’ ad campaign.
Nike’s mastery of activism as a communication strategy has enabled them to build trust and gain loyalty; so much so that consumers anticipate their response to social issues. Their ability to successfully communicate such messages is often reflected in how much shareability and virality their stories receive.
Unfortunately, not all brands are as skilled or thoughtful as Nike when it comes to speaking up on social issues. In fact, some brands are used to completely staying clear of such issues, but in a time where consumers are more sensitive than ever to how brands react and respond, many are taking the easy way out to avoid getting any backlash.
Black squares and text-laden images have been the content format that several brands have opted for. From DTC brands to tech startups and even large publishing houses, many brands are adopting this format to express their solidarity to the #BlackLivesMatter movement. We’ve seen confessionals from founders who have expressed their ignorance and pledged to do more to support the black community and become good allies. All of this is great but it raises very important questions about activism – Are brands being bullied into speaking up? Is activism merely a strategy that brands are adopting for fear of being “cancelled” by their audience? Does true activism exist and whose brand message can we trust at a time like this?
For brands who hadn’t cemented their identity as activists or challengers of culture prior to the uprising, it will be difficult to prove that taking a stance against racial injustice or inequality isn’t just another marketing gimmick.
The truth is that not every brand can be audacious with their positioning or storytelling, so how can they address these topics without coming off as disingenuous, and should they even care to address them?
This is an interesting dilemma that a lot of brand communication and marketing teams are currently being faced with. In fact, this predicament trickles down to influencers, who are also taking the heat and being pressured to use their platforms to address the prevalent problems. Some influencers are conflicted about speaking on issues that go against their whole brand essence. Many quietly wonder why they should be pressured to speak up in times of controversy when their “brand positioning” is centred on avoiding controversial topics all together. Others argue that it is utterly inhumane to stay silent on issues that deeply affect other human beings who are part of minority communities that make up the audience of these brands/influencers and in most cases account for their success (in the form of sales, views or followership).
The argument then becomes should brands be compelled to speak up or become one-time activists for certain important issues without necessarily adopting an activism strategy? And if so, how should they go about it?
There is no doubt that there has been a massive shift in the world of marketing and advertising in the past few years. With the emergence of new technology and social media platforms, brands now have the much needed closeness that they have always craved, but being close to your consumers comes at a price. As relationships with people develop, there will be certain moments when you need to have difficult conversations and address the elephant in the room. Racial injustice and inequality of any kind have always been hard topics to speak about, but they are topics brands will have to hash out with their consumers at some point. In real life relationships, individuals are held accountable and “called out” by the people closest to them. In the same vein, brands have to be prepared to deal with the downsides of their newly found closeness to consumers. They must be ready for the repercussions that often come with avoidance, silence, and burying issues under the carpet. There is no one-size fits all activism strategy that brands must adopt. The key thing for brands is learning more about their consumers and keeping their pain points in mind. If the issue affects your consumers, then you should definitely address it. Your content should never be made in isolation of what is going on around the people that matter most to your brand.
Furthermore, it is important to remember that your conversation is only the first step. If you’re going to address a problem, then you must be willing to commit to a solution. The magnitude of racial inequality makes it an even more challenging problem but brands and organizations must ensure that they go beyond expressing solidarity with the content they put out. Are your brand teams diverse? Do you address race related issues that come up in your organization? Are minority consumers represented on your social channels and in your advertising? If you’re not going beyond your content to tackle the issue, word will eventually get out and that could have some long term negative consequences for your brand. As a brand owner, it is your responsibility to take the time to really examine your motives independent of the fear of being “cancelled” or labeled. This will help you create more authentic content that shows transparency and the heart behind your brand.
It is impossible to make any significant impact without employing creativity. In the past few weeks, we’ve seen so much duplication from brands who have hurriedly tried to address the issue. Replicating what everyone else is doing makes it even more obvious to your consumers that you in fact do not care about the issues you are speaking up against.
The best way to get your audience’s attention is by doing something that is unique to your brand. Don’t just put up a generic image, instead think of creative ways to communicate – it could be by getting your CEO to address consumers in an honest and open way, sharing the step your brand is taking to fight the problem, or releasing a creative campaign in line with your brand voice and story like Nike has done. It’s all about being thoughtful and expressing that thoughtfulness in a way that’s unique to your brand.
One might ask how often brands need to speak up on such issues. When does the conversation end and is one post enough to avoid scrutiny from your audience? For issues such has racism, diversity, and inclusion, brands need to bear in mind that this will be an ongoing conversation. It certainly cannot be extinguished by putting up one post. By deciding to speak on it, you should be ready to masterfully incorporate the conversation into your long-term content strategy.
The frequency of related stories will be up to your team, but all brands must bear in mind that they are making a commitment to consumers (especially those most impacted by the situation) when they share that very first post. If you desire to keep your consumers happy and loyal, the best thing you can do is avoid breaking that commitment.