Can Brands Take A Political Stance Without Seeming Opportunistic?

Can Brands Take A Political Stance Without Seeming Opportunistic?

Do brands have the legitimacy to dress up with a cultural cause and make a political stance that is not seen as opportunistic self-promotion? And how to differentiate meaningful actions from simply making a corporate statement? Brand expert Sergio Brodsky has penned his thoughts in this opinion piece.

Sérgio Brodsky
Posted by Sérgio Brodsky

Since last Friday’s legalisation of gay marriage in the USA, rainbow strokes have painted several brands in support of the pride and glory of equality. Facebook created a rainbow filter allowing people to show support through their profile pictures. Twitter brought together several torrents of conversations under the hashtag #lovewins and through its app, Periscope, live-streamed the positive vibes taken to the streets inviting everyone else to join the party.

For the gay community this has certainly been a “golden gaytime” with Youtube celebrating the moment with a compilation of coming-out videos.

But do brands have the legitimacy to dress up with a cause and make a political stance that is not seen as opportunistic self-promotion? According to a 2014 study entitled “Business and politics, do they mix?” by  public affairs and research firm Global Strategy Group (GSG), the answer is Y-E-S! The general public do want brands to be more overtly political, whether that means Disney’s deliberate offer to raise minimum wages, Chipotle asking gun owners not to bring their firearms inside or Dove telling women to be more confident and appreciate their real beauty.

Honey Maid, a nearly 90-year-old graham cracker brand, grabbed headlines in 2014 by with a new campaign featuring ads with interracial and gay couples, a tattooed punk rock musician and a single father. Chevrolet featured same-sex couples in commercials that ran during controversial “anti-gay” Winter Olympics of Sochi. These ads are not just speaking to gay people, they’re speaking to straight people too. Even yogurt is now challenging the sacrosanctness of the family institution. To highlight its ‘To Love This Life Is To Live It Naturally’ campaign, with ads featuring a lesbian couple, yogurt brand Chobani released on that same Friday the tune “Love Song,” available for download on its website.

Religion, another sensitive topic saw a few taking a stance for religious tolerance. The Manischewitz Company – best known for selling Passover matzos – launched Chanukah House kits using cookie dough in 2012. “We want to give families a fun activity to do,” said spokeswoman Sara Stromer. Manischewitz hosts a competition on Facebook for the best-decorated house, with a $2,000 first prize. Harbor Sweets, a small, New England handcrafted-chocolate brand, started selling Hanukkah gift boxes decorated with menorahs in response to customer demand.

“Christmas-celebrating customers do not want to leave out their friends or clients who celebrated Hanukkah, and requested that the company make a specific gift box,” explained Harbor Sweets owner Phyllis Leblanc. Christmas and Christians have infamously had ugly festive sweaters for ages; now, so does Jews and Hanukkah.

As controversial as some of the above examples might seem, this signals the emergence of more socially responsible and culturally progressive brands. A few key findings from the GSG study reinforce the fact that those brands are indeed on the right track:

  • 56 per cent of respondents think corporations should “take a stance” on political/cultural issues, even when they’re controversial
  • 89 per cent believe that corporations have the power to influence social change
  • 80 per cent think that these corporations should take action to address our society’s most pressing challenges

But “make no mistake about it…” is what said JR Little, global head of innovation of media agency Carat and a close gay friend, straight from the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity. “While many brands were late to the cause or may be jumping on the bandwagon for press, the mainstream awareness and supporting gestures are appreciated. However, the LGBT community has long listed the friendly and unfriendly companies through Stonewalls Top 100 companies for lesbian, gay and bisexual staff. So while some businesses are rainbow washing, like was done during the sustainability movement with green washing, the LGBT community knows where their real allies are. Actions speak louder than words.”

But how to differentiate meaningful actions from simply making a corporate statement? Tanya Meck, executive vice president and managing director at GSG provides an edifying example: “The CEOs of McDonald’s and Starbucks took a position in favour of a higher minimum wage, while Walt Disney took action by raising starting pay at its theme parks in Florida to $10 an hour. More than nine in ten adults see Walt Disney’s action as appropriate (91 per cent). On the other hand, only 77 per cent of the public feels the positions taken by Starbucks and McDonald’s are appropriate.”

Has this phenomenon always been this rampant, or is it just that everything is more visible in the 24/7 news and social media era we live in today? There’s no doubt that captains of industry have been activists and puppeteers in the past, but often their opinions and stances came through donations, quiet side project or initiatives that occurred behind closed doors. While that business still transpires, there is something more open, more authentic going on now.

Brands have become the most dominant force in our civilisation, whereby understanding humanity and its culture becomes their true source of value. Even though this deeper cultural understanding could mean Facebook now has the data to re-target the allegedly 26 million people who used the rainbow filter, businesses have become the rightful non-governmental organisations driving broader agendas, and the best barometers of our society. As written by Sze Tsung Leong co-author of ‘The Harvard Design School Guide to Shopping’: “Not only is shopping melting into everything, but everything is melting into shopping”.

The more culturally switched-on marketers can make a difference by designing experiences that both generates profits to their companies and clients as well as creates shared value to society. If the agency folks or corporate suits were in need of some incentive, this year a new award, The Glass Lion, was created to recognise work that implicitly or explicitly addresses issues of gender inequality or prejudice, through the conscious representation of gender in advertising. The winner? All of us.