2020 is a year that will be remembered for a lot of things, from Australia wildfires fuelled by climate change to the uprising against racism and the global COVID-19 pandemic. More than ever, brand activism has become increasingly important as brands are taking action to make a positive impact on society.
Consumers appear to be more loyal to brands that go beyond selling their own product or service. According to Edelmen’s research, more than half (53%) of consumers agree that every brand has a responsibility to get involved in at least one social issue that doesn’t have a direct impact on their business. In another survey conducted by Sproutsocial, 43% of consumers said brands should speak out when an issue directly impacts their brand. Marketing Dive also pointed out that millennials have the highest expectations for brands to speak out as 46% of the age group expect brands to be brave, followed by 42% of Gen Z.
When brands engage in a social issue, they become a part of the trending topic and can foster customer loyalty by tapping into their values and beliefs. While there’s nothing wrong with trying to turn a problem into an opportunity, many brands are being criticized and accused of taking advantage of unfortunate situations. Let’s find out what are the right ways for brands to step into social issues and learn from the best campaigns.
The Covid-19 outbreak has forced many brands to completely change the way they used to communicate with their audiences. For the first time, McDonald’s decided to redraw their “M” icon to reinforce the importance of social distancing. Coca-cola also put spaces between the letters in Times Square emphasizing the message: "Staying apart is the best way to stay united." Guinness’s ad We will toast again was among the first ads that sent a voice of hope and positivity amid the ongoing pandemic, receiving great responses from the audience.
Making a statement, changing the slogan or running ads are no longer enough as consumers want to see brands taking real action. During the pandemic, a lot of brands gave back to the community through various COVID-19 charity initiatives. Some also partnered with influencers to raise awareness for their campaigns such as the Pomelo Cares Initiatives and #ReindeerReady campaign from McDonald’s. Among the various charity initiatives, Securian Financial’s UGC campaign Life Balance Remix stood out from the rest. The campaign encouraged people to share content about how they’re balancing their new lives at home, and for every post with hashtag #LifeBalanceRemix, they donated $10 to Feeding America. According to Hootsuite, the campaign generated over 2.5 million impressions across Twitter and Instagram.
Takeaway: In times of crisis, it is critical for brands to maintain a positive attitude towards the situation. Giving proper advice, sending hopeful messages are great ways to motivate and engage consumers. Brands can also launch charity initiatives to support the community with their available resources and budget. Read our previous blog COVID-19 Charity Initiatives to find out how brands are practicing social responsibility in different ways.
2020 also witnessed the uprising against racism with the Black Lives Matter movement. Among the wave of support for the movement, Procter & Gamble nailed their campaign with a series of thought-provoking films which highlights racism experienced by black men in America, inspiring individuals to take action to create the world we want to live in. We’ve also seen a lot of good examples of brand activism from big-name brands such as AirBnB, Shopify, Peloton, Uber.
Regarding the LGBT movement, Oreo and Pantene are among major brands that speak up to support the LGBT community. While Oreo’s ad Proud Parent sends an inspiring message about how important it is for parents to accept and support their homosexual children, Pantene has partnered with the Family Equality Council to donate $1 for every photo sharing your own #BeautifuLGBTQ family! Noticing that influencers can also be credible communicators, Patene partnered with numerous LGBT influencers to spread the word for their campaign.
Takeaway: Recently, we’ve seen a huge wave of ads supporting the Black Lives Matter and LGBT movement. The question is whether your brand should get involved in these issues, and which issue is best to tackle. Although there are a lot of ads which inspire change out there, there is always a risk for brands to take a public stance on controversial issues. Let’s read on to find out a few examples that fell flat on their faces.
While playing on customers’ fear of the coronavirus can help brands capture customer’s attention instantly, it can also result in massive backlash and criticism from the audience.
To promote its insurance program during the pandemic, Bupa Australia used the image of an empty shelf (and the lack of toilet paper) with the message: “Don’t panic. Get Bupa Health Insurance”. The post was criticized to create unnecessary panic among customers as the image illustrates product shortages, not to mention that it is not consistent with the message in their content.
In June 2020, to express their support for the LGBT movement, L'Oréal shared a post on Twitter: “L’Oréal Paris stands in solidarity with the Black community, and against injustice of any kind.” The post immediately sparked anger among its followers and made this brand the subject of heavy criticism on social media. This is because 3 years ago, L'Oréal suddenly dropped Munroe Bergdorf, a trans Black woman, from their campaign when she spoke out publicly against racism and white supremacy.
In response to the Tweet, Munroe Bergdorf made a long post expressing her anger and sharing her emotional & professional harm caused by the brand’s decision. In another post, the model called the brand to apologize and emphasized that the Black Lives Matter “should not be co-opted for capital gain by companies”.
A few days later, L’Oreal new leader decided to invite Munroe to join the company’s U.K. diversity and inclusion board to support the LGBT movement. They also plan to make donations of over $28,000 to Mermaids, a U.K. charity supporting transgender youth, and UK Black Pride, an annual event for LGBTQ people of African, Asian, Caribbean, Middle Eastern and Latin American descent.
LGBT-inclusive ads are never risk-free, and so is Oreo’s ProudParent. The ad received certain backlash which mostly come from the anti-LGBT communities on social media, with one group even calling to boycott the brand. Last October, the conservative advocacy group One Million Moms launched a petition threatening to boycott Oreo as it is "pushing the LGBTQ agenda on families." They stated: "Oreo and parent company, Mondelez International, have begun airing a gay pride commercial which has absolutely nothing to do with selling cookies.”
According to Advocate, One Million Moms is a frequent boycotter of pro-LGBTQ+ initiatives, and despite its title, it has fewer than 5,000 followers on Twitter. Despite the warning, Oreo maintained silent and continued making efforts to include the transgender community in the marketing.
Brands need to avoid communication that is hardcore selling or anxiety-triggering in the middle of a social matter. Bupa’s controversial ad, whether it is done on purpose or not, is not a good example of brand activism. Audiences want to hear from brands during a crisis, but only when they are spreading positive, hopeful messages that can comfort or offer practical solutions.
Pushing out PR and trying to fit into the conversation are good strategies, but it’s not always the right formula for brand activism. Chances are that your brand will convey the same message that others are deploying and will not be able to find a good place in the conversation. Instead of jumping into the problem too soon, it is important to spend some time observing, listening to your customers and engaging them in a creative way. Securian Financial is a prime example of brands that nailed their campaign by listening to their customers.
Brands should not voice their opinion on big social issues just because it’s trending or other companies are jumping into the bandwagon. They need to go through a thoughtful process of assessing the situation and choosing the issues most relevant to their core values. Otherwise, the audience will look at you as an opportunist trying to take advantage of the situation and react negatively to your brand activism.
There is always a risk for brands to engage in social and political issues. Many brands are trying their best to create an ad that inspires, but we often control the public’s response to it. L’Oreal and Oreo are examples of brands that had 2 different responses when faced with a backlash: One admitted their mistake and took action quickly to cool down the situation, while the other chose to stay silent and remain consistent with their values.
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