Head to Head: Should brands take a stance on real-world issues?

In this new series, Mumbrella Asia invites the industry's most senior professionals to share their opposing views on the industry's biggest issues. This week, Edelman's Bea Atienza and Landor's Nick Foley debate whether there is any brand value in taking a stance on serious societal issues beyond product promotion

From politics to same-sex marriage, taking a public stance on a real-world issue can be thorny territory for a brand. While some may hail brands such as Starbucks for its support of LBGT rights, others argue that brands risk alienating and polarising their potential customer base.

So should brands take a stance on real-world issues? For Edelman’s Bea Atienza, marketing driven by belief and principles is central to a brand’s business. However, for Nick Foley, brands do better when they stick to what they do best.

Yes, brands should take a stance on real-world issues – argues Bea Atienza, Edelman Singapore planning lead

Bea Atienza

Brands and communication that take a stance can build greater trust among consumers and are the new normal. Done right and rooted in business integrity, they are what consumers are seeking.

According to Edelman’s Earned Brand study belief-driven buyers’ make up half of global consumers and 65 per cent of them will not buy a brand’s products if it stays silent on an issue it had an obligation to address.

In addition, those who buy on belief are more loyal. Fifty one per cent of belief-driven consumers buy only that brand and buy more often when it supports its position on an issue versus a brand that stays silent. Finally those who buy on belief are more supportive: 48 per cent of people in the study advocate for the brand, defend it and criticise competitors when a brand supports their position on an issue.



However, belief-driven brands should go beyond simply evolving the narrative. Belief can become an organisational blueprint and must be rooted in business practices. Unilever’s ‘sustainable living plan’ – its pledge to manage its environmental impact while increasing social impact – and Johnson & Johnson’s parental benefit plan for employees are wonderful examples of this.

Belief-led marketing should be checked against reputational risk and should not be contradicted by existing corporate or business practices. When Dove’s ‘Real Beauty’ first launched critics noted that it was the same company that promoted what was then a less feminist Axe. More recently, Slate Street has come under fire for unfair gender practices that dampen the impact of the Fearless Girl.

That stance should also be backed by acts rather than just putting out points of view. REI, an outdoor retailer, made headlines for closing its stores and e-commerce channels on the lucrative Black Friday of 2015 – and encouraged both its employees and its customers to have an outdoor adventure instead.

Belief-driven communication has become a necessity for brands and backed by authentic action, trust and earned attention it can become a true business growth enabler.

No, brands should not take a stance on real-world issues – argues Nick Foley, Landor South East Asia Pacific and Japan president

Mumbrella360 Asia 2017

The primary role of a brand is to create a distinct, desirable, engaging and credible position in the mind of its target audience. When done well, the brand will be top of mind with the consumer because of what it stands for.

Great brands are driven by a single-minded idea. For Disney that idea is ‘magic’. For Nike it’s ‘winning’ and for Red Bull it’s ‘extreme energy’. These are brand ideas which are quite distinct from campaign tag lines. In Nike’s case, the core idea of ‘winning’ has informed various campaigns. ‘I can do that’, ‘You don’t win silver; you lose gold’ and ‘Just do it’ are just a few examples of the brand idea being brought to life through a tag line in a campaign.

Regardless of whether it’s a brand idea or a campaign, most brands are at their best when appealing to a broad market. Herein lies the challenge when supporting one-off causes.

Clearly, if the cause has the appropriate synergy with a brand, then it is worth considering. Brands supporting cancer research is an example of where synergies may apply. Starbucks is currently encouraging Indonesian women to unleash their ‘pink voice’ and break their silence about suffering from the disease during Breast Cancer Awareness Month. This is a good fit with a specific cause.

The challenge for marketers is where to draw the line? Any issue that is inherently political is fraught with risk. Examples of areas that brands would do well to steer clear of include topics like referendums or contrasting social issues.  In the United Kingdom for example, Brexit has been a divisive topic.  In Australia the plebiscite on same sex marriage is proving to be polarising. Finally, in the United States, immigration and gun control continue to be topics of fierce debate.

For brand custodians charged with maximising market share across a diverse base of consumers, the best advice is to adopt a neutral position. Brands march to a different beat compared to political organisations. This is particularly so when a brand is owned by a publicly listed company.  The core responsibility of a company will always be to its shareholders. Brands enable a premium in the market, which then results in profit to a company, which is distributed to shareholders in the form of dividends. Like it or loathe it, this is one of the fundamental pillars of capitalism.

  • As told to Eleanor Dickinson. If you’re a senior professional who would like to take part in a future Head to Head debate, please email eleanor@mumbrella.asia

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