Yes, No, Maybe: Should brands tackle social issues?

Yes, No, Maybe: Should brands tackle social issues?

Reactive advertising is nothing new. But Coke has taken it a step further and moved to patch up relations between India and Pakistan with vending machines that allow the countries’ residents to communicate in realtime based on the brand’s ‘happiness’ message. Is this something brands should do more of?

This 'Yes, No, Maybe' first appeared in the June 7 2013 issue of B&T Magazine. More details on the debate raging around 'Small World Machines' can be found here. 

Nick Davis, executive director, Interbrand Melbourne

Yes – "If you've got a clear purpose and belief system, you will be ok"

It’s clear that the opportunity for brands to have a voice and role in people’s lives and social concerns is greater than ever these days.

For brand owners, it’s a classic Catch-22. You can get more airtime, but you can also be more exposed. One response is to stick to your core business and steer clear. Stay focused on your category position battles and don’t aspire to stand for more than a product or service promise.

An alternative response is to be active, if not proactive, on social issues.

The brand owners that do this best are those with a view that a clear purpose trumps a category position. They recognise that category positions can be disrupted daily by copycats and innovators.

A strong purpose and belief system not only helps fend off category competition, it also frees your brand to transcend such confines.

Ultimately the consumer will decide whether it’s relevant for your brand to have a voice on social issues. But their judgements will be fair if there’s integrity in your intent.

If you’ve got a clear purpose and belief system, you will be ok. If not, you should get one.


Dominic Walsh, managing director, Landor Associates

Maybe – "Reacting to social issues is a short-term gimmick"

In a world of social media, brands need to be socially aware. The web creates a new level of transparency for brands and this means they need to demonstrate they are good corporate citizens.

Brands, however, need to be certain that the social issue they are aligning themselves with has relevance to their brand. It was not so long ago that all brands were jumping on the ‘green’ bandwagon and being accused of ‘green washing’.

For a brand to align itself with a social issue it needs to demonstrate genuine intent. This goes beyond communications and needs to form part of the brand’s DNA.

If a brand is serious about the issue they need to put their money where their mouth is. Tom’s Shoes demonstrates this well with the one for one movement. For every pair of shoes you buy, Tom’s will give a pair to children living in poverty. IKEA is another example, referring to its social initiatives as ‘the never ending list’ and its social responsibility is central to its business philosophy.

In short, reacting to social issues is a short-term gimmick and, in the new world order, consumers expect substance.


Chris Jeffares, managing director, CumminsRoss

Yes – "Hell hath no furth like a consumer scorned"

Having just watched the richest-again man in the world, Bill Gates, deliver a very compelling Q&A episode around his amazing philanthropy and key world health issues, I was caught in a positive frame on this topic. Sure, he is doing this all on a more personal level now. But make no mistake, all those $Bs came from one of the world’s largest and most successful brands in Microsoft and he and they will be forever intertwined.

The caveats on this positive perspective on brand involvement are relevance and risks. ‘Relevance’ in that the brand should stay true to its values and essence in what it supports. Powerhouse brands can bring great contributions to these issues, but need to avoid the shallow meme-centric approach of just hijacking the latest topical issues. Same sex marriage? Green

Facebook avatars? Occupy Wall Street? And ‘risk’ in the foresight and management of these, because the modern consumer will gladly ridicule and flame the actions of any brand if they doubt the authenticity of this support and sense a less than altruistic motive.

They have the means, the technology, the social platforms and many seek the fame. Follow the sentiment trends in the Coke YouTube commentary and you can clearly sense the passion and polarisation around this social issue and Coke’s involvement.

It’s a brilliantly crafted three minutes that treads respectfully and joyfully. But hell hath no fury like a consumer scorned. (Especially if they have a Canon EOS 5D, After Effects and a big Klout score).


Andy DiLallo, chief creative officer, Leo Burnett Sydney (the agency is behind Coke's Small World Machines)

Yes – "'Small World Machines' is a real-world example of the power of creativity"

‘Small World Machines’ highlights in the most beautiful way the positive role in society that a brand can play, and there should be more of it.

I think the significance of this project transcends being attached to this year alone.

Instead, the real significance of this project has more to do with the journey Coke as a company has been on to get to this point. Coke has now demonstrated that it is willing to live up to the courage of its convictions by attempting something of this nature. Its demonstration of strength and confidence in who it is as a brand is a very rare and powerful thing in this business.

‘Small World Machines’ is an initial step in the positive direction to bring greater appreciation of commonalities and to encourage the letting go of differences. Although it is a small step, it is a forward step, and that can only be a good thing.

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