How Brands Can Navigate Social Issues

Chris WrenMay 4, 20173 min

Recently, Heineken UK jumped on the “reconciling differences” bandwagon and released a spot where people with opposing views come to understand each other (better) over a beer. While some in the industry lauded the approach as the antidote to Pepsi’s debacle, others have observed a different set of tone-deaf mistakes that are every bit as gross.

What’s becoming clearer in these uncertain times is the lack of leadership to bring people together is leaving a vacuum with which society is not comfortable. Whether society wants brands to fill that gap is debatable. But all brands know that consumers in every sector are looking to brands to bring value above and beyond the product the service and the transaction.

So, while many recent attempts by brands to weigh in on social justice have come off as opportunistic and fake, I have to believe at some level most of these brands know they need to do more, but may be lacking in follow-through, buy-in, or strategy to really make it count. These three concepts will help guide the way:

1. Go And Meet Your Customers

With the dizzying array of technology platforms collecting data and feeding it into dashboards, some brands might be seduced by low-cost and passive ways of determining sentiment. This is not how to have a real relationship. In fact, digital-only relationships are sometimes called ‘para-social’ as too much context is imagined or inferred.

Russell Dubner at Edelman recently wrote about just how many brands have lost touch with their customers. In talking about how to regain intimacy and knowledge, he says, “One media company realized they had lost touch with a key customer segment. So what did they do about it? They got out of their New York City offices and into the places where most of their consumers live. And when they did, they realized they had been going about engaging that audience all wrong. Worse still, they had probably (unintentionally) been offending them in the process.”

2. Define What You Stand For (Besides Making Money)

The topic of purpose is a recurring theme here on Branding Strategy Insider and that’s because it is the bedrock upon which everything else stands. When leadership has a common understanding of brand values (and more importantly how the brand lives those values) and pairs that with what customers expect, the fog around complex issues is lifted and plotting a course of action becomes easier to do.

We’ve seen so many examples in 2017 where brands have made bad decisions with good intentions because they decided to shift their purpose without making sure they were living their purpose. At the same time, Starbucks’ stood up to the US immigration ban in a way that was perceived as genuine, despite those who disagreed. The difference between success and failure is all about clarity of purpose.

3. Know When To Act

There’s a lot of injustice in the world. Every day contains a week’s worth of news inside of which are countless issues that matter to many of a brand’s customers. But activism and social causes are not a brand’s reason to exist. Russell Dubner correctly says, “At the end of the day, sometimes (most of the time) your job as a brand is to deliver a product or service to your customers without a side of advocacy. Full stop.”

But sometimes there will be a cause where an issue aligns to a brand’s core values, and one where the brand has actual qualifications or ethos to fill a void of leadership. In those circumstances, brands need to make a commitment to the community to have a lasting impact and be a force that contributes to meaningful and lasting change.

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