Business is not, as usual. In a post-Brexit, post-election world, everything has changed and it’s consequently changed the game for brands. Instead of remaining nonchalant about political and sociological issues, businesses are now expected to have an opinion, pick a side and make a stand. Long gone is the heyday of advertising when groups of laughing friends having a good time could sell a product. Maybe it’s gone because no one is actually having a good time anymore. Our cultural landscape has changed and everyone is sitting around wondering if they’ll be either allowed in the county, or wondering if they can still visit relatives across Europe, and that shit isn’t funny, by anyone’s standards.
But the deafening cry for brands to stand for something can lead to marketing catastrophes such as the recent Pepsi saga, which might have been a disaster for them, but actually made for some hilarious tweets. It’s times like these when the internet truly does come through for us all.
But that’s beside the point, the point actually is that taking a stand is difficult. It’s hard to get your message right and the risks of pissing off your core customers are very real, and consequently very big.
Which begs the question, should brands even take a stand? Or should they actually just stay in their lane and stick to what they’re good at? We all know a can of Pepsi isn’t going to undo centuries of racism. And a bunch of people drinking Heineken and building IKEA furniture together isn’t going to change the reality for transgender people. And really, how responsible are you actually being? Throwing social issues into your TV ad isn’t helping anyone. Black people still get shot, women are still underpaid and refugees still flee their homes. Advertisements and marketing campaigns that try to pay lip service to social ills are succeeding only in pissing everyone off.
And that comes down to a lack of thought from agencies behind these campaigns at a time when they so desperately needed to step up and fulfill their role in steering businesses into a profitable future, as opposed to slapping a scarlet letter on their backs.
And it can be done. Brands can make a stand without crumbling under crushing public backlash. Starbucks, Lyft and Airbnb all responded to Trump’s executive orders by offering to hire, house or donate to the refugee cause. Naturally, not every brand has one million to give, even to the best of causes, and this is where with the right agency and the right insights, brands can declare their support in a way that doesn’t alienate their own supporters.
For example, Diesel’s recent #MakeLoveNotWalls campaign succeeded in promoting a positive message within the political climate, effectively telling the world where they stood regarding the current American administration. But the difference is they did it artistically and tactfully in a way that did not put capitalism and consumer products at the forefront, and above all they’re promoting a message of love. Not even the most Grinch-like consumer is going to complain about promoting love.
There is a balance to be struck, and the message you’re trying to promote has to come first, rather than selling your product. We all know you want to sell and create revenue, everyone knows that, but we’re living in a time when shoving it down the throats of your consumers doesn’t work anymore. We’re all that little bit more aware of capitalist tricks and although we might buy into them, we want to do it in a way that also nurtures our social conscious because today that’s what we care about. Basically, brands have to actually care, rather than claim to, and if they don’t, they should leave the social and political commentary well alone. As in, avoid it like the plague and stick to the laughing friends instead.