US Insights

Brands Must Weigh the Risks When Taking a Stand

Nigel Hollis

Chief Global Analyst

Brands 03.05.2018 / 08:00

kt_com_Takeaway 5

Most people feel little passion for the brands they use

Today’s endless media coverage makes it seem like people are more invested in politics and social issues than ever before. By contrast, few people have ever been that invested in brands. Shocking though it may be to a brand manager, most people feel little passion for the brands they use. And perhaps this explains why so many brands are trying to associate themselves with social issues. They hope that some of that passion will rub off on the brand. But in trying to align their brands with a cause, marketers may end up hurting the brand rather than helping it.

Social media have had a huge influence on our culture by helping to connect people of like minds across geographies. This has given those outside the mainstream a collective voice they never had before. But the societal effects of social media are far greater than giving voice to extremists. In the past, “fish schooling” used to be a concept applied to teens; now everyone lives in their own social shoal and quickly follows along as it weaves and turns. As a result, many brand managers feel that if they do not act quickly and keep up with their target audience they will be left behind.

But are marketers right to assume that they have to be part of the cultural debate? The BrandZ Top 100 Most Valuable Global Brands Ranking provides evidence to suggest that pursuing a purpose is weaker than other more fundamental drivers of success. A comparison of the same 86 brands that were measured in both 2006 and 2017 finds that those in the top third for making people’s lives better grew by 175 percent and the lowest third by only 70 percent. However, the top third ranked by perceptions of innovation grew 276 percent versus the bottom third at 15 percent. And if we examine the sorts of brands that scored well on making people’s lives better, it is brands like Visa, IBM and PayPal. Ultimately, people like and value brands for making their lives better and for solving a personal need, not because they are trying to make society and the world a better place.

Whether or not brands must align with activist values depends on their origins and heritage. Brands like Ben & Jerry’s that are known to stand for a cause have little to lose. People who disagree with their stance enough to care have likely given up on the brand already. But brands that suddenly espouse a cause run the risk of seeming inauthentic.

Done correctly, espousing a cause can benefit the brand, not lead it to be criticized.

For example, Kantar Millward Brown tested consumer reactions to the Always “Keep Playing” #LikeAGirl ad campaign. The campaign connected the brand to a broader social purpose, and it did so well. Research showed that it was involving and inspiring, and that it created an instinctive impression that the brand is supportive, is a leader and is confident.

Today’s social heat is turned up high, so whatever they do, brands need to tread carefully. Dove is a famously activist brand, yet it incurred social backlash for posting a three-second Facebook video clip for its body wash product that appeared to show a black woman transforming into a white woman. The brand apologized for not representing women of color thoughtfully, and it may well be that, in the rush to get the content online, little thought was given to how the video would be received by the ever-present social critics. Time pressure and the failure to check the likely audience response beforehand has probably led to more than a few high-profile missteps over the past year.

In times of change, it is more important than ever to stay in close touch with the needs, values and sentiments of potential buyers. Whatever their own views, marketers would do well to make sure they understand the sentiments of all their customers and assess the risks as well as the rewards of taking up a social cause. If the risks seem low and the brand is seen to have a right to play in the chosen space, then the challenge is to get the word out in a way that feels authentic, not opportunistic. In this regard, there is no substitute for pre-testing ad content before distribution with a sample of the target audience. Once an ad goes live online, for good or ill, it will live forever.

Source: Kantar

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