These days brands are walking on a razor’s edge surrounded by eggshells. If they talk about women’s rights, but not the LGBT community, they are biased. If they celebrate women’s victories but don’t discuss the struggle for wage equality, it’s a missed opportunity. Some days it feels like brands are being asked to be all things to all men and women.
Diet Coke recently launched a campaign called Unlabeled, where for a limited run of cans they will be running them without their branding, just the red strip on the can, to start a conversation about just that, labels. This somewhat fits with Coke as they have pretty much owned corporate social responsibility – back when it was called that – using their platform to engage on social issues like bridging the gap between Pakistan and India through a dance-inspired vending machine, bottle caps that only open when they link together to get college freshmen to start conversations, or allowing migrant workers in the UAE to use bottle caps as currency to call their families at home. Remember when Starbucks tried the #RaceTogether campaign, where they were encouraging their Barista’s to start a conversation with customers about race? There was a media backlash - a firestorm of epic proportions. ‘How dare Starbucks wade into the conversation about race issues in America?’ Some chimed in. ‘It’s not the place to talk about race when I am just trying to get my coffee.’ carried the tone of other objections.
And they are not altogether wrong. Starbucks’ intention, albeit noble, might have just been misplaced, as with many brands. Being a brand in our modern era where offence is easy and understanding is hard to come by is no walk in the park. Brands must have a 24/7 finger on the pulse of multiple issues at once – issues of race, gender, pay, equality, violence against women, children’s rights, hunger, social justice, underprivileged communities, workers rights, consumers’ rights, environmental issues – and when they chose to craft their messaging, they now have to divide their marketing budgets across multiple messages to craft the silver bullet that that hits every target from multiple angles to show each caucus that they care about them and not just about the bottom line.
Many marketing and communications executives will ask the question today, ‘what are we saying and doing about this?’ but that is the wrong question. Instead, they should be asking the deeper, more probing and appropriate questions, ‘Is this the right conversation for us?’ and ‘what should we say and what action should we follow up that conversation with?’ Oddly self-serving, you say? Hardly. In fact, this question combo may be self-saving for a brand. Asking these questions encourages brands to not be reactive to the latest trend, hashtag and movement, but be more intentional and long term about their social engagement and impact on their communities beyond the goods and services they provide. It gives them the chance to listen to what their customers are saying, find out what the interests of the markets are, and engage in meaningful, productive dialogue and change.
Is every conversation right for every brand? Or should brands choose carefully which conversations they take part in? It seems almost the expectation today that brands have to have a stance on every talking point, and don’t reserve the right to choose when they raise their hands and their voices.
And most importantly it gives them the opportunity to align their messaging and actions with their values.
When you are able to answer these questions truthfully, then the right steps can be taken in crafting a campaign that fits; either with your current brand, or charting a path toward a new brand. But the company doesn’t control the brand entirely as a brand is 50% to 80% market perception, so a brand takes time to change. A new logo, or a new campaign out of the blue, doesn’t do the trick.
Companies and brands today have a delicate task to perform. Consumers want a brand they can hang out with, that will go for drinks with them and pick up the tab when it’s their turn. People are looking for brands they can be friends with. But brands also have to be careful they don’t become that one friend that is desperate to please everyone. Instead, brands should have strong values; take a stand when necessary, and stay silent when the conversation isn’t the right fit.