Why Aussie Brands Are Simply Too Scared To Wave The Refugee Flag

Internally displaced Syrians at a refugee camp near the Turkish border in Atmeh, Syria

Aussie brands are remaining silent on their stance on the Syrian refugee crisis because there’s not a buck in it or they’re worried it’ll damage the brand, industry pros claim.

Emma Mackenzie
Posted by Emma Mackenzie

However, when the debate was about marriage equality in recent times, many brands, large and small, loudly declared their support, going so far to collaborate with a full-page ad in The Australian.

While large charity and humanitarian organisations have formed a stance, such as Oxfam, World Vision and Save the Children taking out a full-page ad in The Australian yesterday, when seeking out other brands who have made a similar commitment, many industry pros came up blank.

It’s because the marriage equality space was widely regarded by the public as being a positive thing thanks to Ireland’s referendum and America’s legalisation, believes Andrew Davenport, CEO of creative agency The White Agency.

“It’s become a safe space for a brand to jump into,” he said. “I don’t think the refugee situation is a safe space for a brand.”

And the lack of a stance on the refugee issue can also come down to commercial reasons, added James Wright, managing director of communications agency Red Agency.

“A lot of brands in Australia tend to be fast followers,” he said. “They’re like ‘we’re not willing to take a chance on a particularly big issue and lead the way in case we become isolated and alienate key stakeholders and consumers’.

“You’ve got to weigh up how much upside is there for the brand out of this, compared to the downside. If it’s really risky, then commercially you’re probably not going to do it, even if actually, as a brand, agree with it.”

At the end of the day the shareholders are number one. Rachel Powning, national head of corporate partnerships at Save the Children said: “The first priority for corporates is to their shareholders and customers, and so naturally their marketing focus is on activities which support this.”

For Tony Lee, strategy director at independent agency ntegrity, it could be all about timing. He argues it took brands a long time to come around to the marriage equality stance.

“The popular opinion tide has been shifting on gay marriage for quite some time and, unfortunately, it took decades for brands to openly engage on the issue in the open until they felt it was safe and opportune to do so,” he said.

“The fact is, most brands are systemically not equipped to be activists nor brave. Most escalation procedures within organisations seem to cater for reaction rather than proactivity.

“Therefore, engagement with socially significant issues for big brands can take weeks, months or years to take place, and only after it is carefully considered through all levels of the organisation who may be impacted by these decisions.”

Red Agency’s Wright added: “We talk about boat people and immigration in such a derogatory way at a political level that for a business to then come out and say ‘actually, we disagree and actually we should be opening our doors and being more sensible about the situation’ is a bold and brave move.

“But I’d like to see more brands do it if that’s indeed how they feel about the situation.”

One group of brands Wright would like to see show their stance are the big banks in Australia, as many of the arguments against refugees lead themselves to economic issues.

The issue also has to fit with the brand, and with many brands being lampooned online for stepping foot into a social issue – case in point, Mortein’s Louie the Fly mourning the tragic murder of Stephanie Scott with #putoutyourdress – Jared Woods, social media lead at History Will Be Kind said it’s easy for the message to be misconstrued, and then bam! the brand’s in the shit.

“It’s incredibly difficult for brands that aren’t NGOs, or directly linked to human rights and issues in some way, to make a statement that comes across as genuinely compassionate or supportive in the context of a tragedy,” he said.

“It’s also a very politically sensitive arena, and would be incredibly difficult for brands to show sentimental support without making a public commitment to a national refugee/asylum seeker policy.”

It’s not pertinent for a brand to jump into an issue like this for emotional reasons, argued The White Agency’s Davenport. When suggested though the marriage equality debate was an emotional thing, he said it was due to the population largely genuinely believing in the cause.

That’s not to say people don’t believe supporting or negating the refugee crisis in Syria, he noted some of the comments from people on social media posts from organisations – like Oxfam, Save the Children, World Vision – are “disgusting” but it’s still a widely debated issue, and one in which there are many differing opinions on.

“But they do show you the zeitgeist is a very mixed response to the issue of immigration and refugees. And I think that’s why most brands would tread very cautiously, and I would respect that.”

In a perfect world, ntegrity’s Lee would love to see organisations be spontaneous.

“But the reality is not that simple,” he lamented.

“I also expect many brands feel that their contribution to the conversation is superfluous or unnecessary, or they are fearful of the cynicism, vitriol or even animosity that vocal segments of their customer community may direct at them for their stance.

“Sad, but true.”