Tribalism runs deep. Affinity behavior has been with us throughout history but with an assist from social media, we have achieved a new level of us-versus-them-ism that extends to our consumption habits. A recent Axios/Harris poll shows that brands with a clear political identification are becoming more popular with aligned consumers. Both Patagonia and Chick-fil-A have benefited from their public positions with consumer groups.
G Kofi Annan, V.P. of Consumer Experience and Brand Strategy at JUICE in San Francisco has proposed that as we retreated to our homes for safety, we lost the natural tumble of opinion exchange during a dramatic and critical year in our history. We turned to social media and narrow sources for our news for cues to our worldview rather than our community of co-workers and neighbors. He linked the stay-at-home measures to increased social polarity that he suggests, now extends to our shopping preferences.
The Master of Marketing Has Some Advice
Brand activism as a topic has been gaining currency in recent years. In 2018 marketing guru Philip Kotler published “Brand Activism from Purpose to Action” (co-written with Christian Sarkar). In an interview, Kotler explained, “Brand activism consists of business efforts to promote, impede, or direct social, political, economic, and/or environmental reform or stasis with the desire to promote or impede improvements in society…In the past, a company could selectively choose the issues it wanted to engage in. No more. Your stakeholders, employees, customers, society get to decide. Across the world, people, especially the young are using social media and taking to the streets to stand up against all forms of injustice. They expect your brand to help solve the world’s biggest problems. You’re now a brand activist, whether you like it or not.” Kotler’s 2018 work was a bellwether for today.
Across the world, people, especially the young are using social media and taking to the streets to stand up against all forms of injustice. They expect your brand to help solve the world’s biggest problems. You’re now a brand activist, whether you like it or not.
Marketing students will look back on our current period and study how brands worked to balance the desire for broad consumer appeal, compatibility with the values of the core consumer, and a genuine alignment with the company’s ethical stance. For brands with a culture of activism, Patagonia, Ben & Jerry’s, NIKE, Hobby Lobby, Chick-fil-A and others, the stepping stones were already in place; for those who have not established a stance, it is a bigger challenge.
Taking a Stand…or Not
Brands who have blended social and environmental advocacy into their culture attract a defined customer. Deena Bahri, Chief Marketing Officer at Stock X, the sneaker, streetwear, and collectibles retailer which caters primarily to a Gen Z audience spoke during an interview at Collision 2021 saying, “This consumer group is standing for brands that show up for their values.” She described the Stock X community’s members as both team members and customers who contribute to an ethical baseline grounded in the issues that matter the most to them. Bahri explains that the retailer focused on social justice and stopping hateful actions toward the AAPI (Asian and Pacific Islander) community by using its platform to amplify the company’s values, matching their employees’ charitable donations, and collaborating with under-represented creators.
For brands that serve large markets, taking public stances is murky, and getting it right is hard. In a Fast Company article, author Adam Fletcher points out, “There are a lot of organizations that desire to emulate Ben & Jerry’s but lack a serious history of working on behalf of causes larger than their own success. There’s no manual, and there are no shortcuts to credibility. It requires a willingness to build a foundation…If you can focus on impact over attention, the press will cover your efforts with the depth it merits at a time when you actually deserve it.”
The press has actively covered the pledge generated by The Black Economic Alliance which has gained over 500 signatures including retailers Amazon.com, Nordstrom, Best Buy, Under Armour, REI, Patagonia, Tory Burch, Levi Strauss, and Warby Parker. The pledge urges corporate action against the voter access legislation pending or recently passed in multiple states. Walmart took a different approach. The New York Times reported, “Doug McMillon, the retailer’s CEO, who also chairs the influential Business Roundtable lobby group, sent a note to employees to explain the company’s position. ‘We are not in the business of partisan politics,’ he wrote. ‘While our government relations teams have historically focused on core business issues like tax policy or government regulation, Walmart and other major employers are increasingly being asked to weigh in on broader societal issues such as civil rights.’” The company didn’t sign the statement, but states, “We do want to be clear that we believe broad participation and trust in the election process are vital to its integrity,” according to McMillon.
Some retailers have joined a collective effort and others like Walmart have taken their own approach, but most retailers have avoided the issue altogether. I asked the TV pundit, author, and public relations expert Eric Yaverbaum how he would advise a company on building a values platform under highly charged conditions. He has advised IKEA US, Sony, H & M, American Express and many others, and states authenticity is the foundation. “Saying one thing while you are doing another is how you set yourself up to get ‘canceled.’ It means you will get called out and will have to deal with reputational fallout.” He suggests listening: “If we really want to learn what is important to our stakeholders, we need to listen to people who don’t think exactly like we do. Listen to diverse voices at different levels and consider the values of the communities that the company relies on. Give them the space to express their unique experiences with the company, and consider the changes they are asking for. It all boils down to empathy. Do you have the ability as a person, as a brand, to look at life through the lens of the person that is talking to you?”
The Jury is Still Out
The data shows that customers are paying attention to social and political issues although the connection between brand affinity and purchasing decisions is less clear. Amanda Howe, Expert Associate Partner at Bain & Company London says, “Beware of the say-do-gap.” She cites a recent study that reveals 60 percent of consumers say they want to make far more ethical decisions around their purchasing habits and adds, “The data shows that only 32 percent were prepared to pay for it.” She suggests that it is critical to understand the why of the customer’s expectations but also to establish the role that the brand can play in taking action and to be sure that the customer will be on this journey with them.
Another option for a brand to mediate controversial issues is to turn down the heat. Buzz Feed News recently reported that Starbucks is assessing its presence on Facebook. “Facebook employees who manage the social network’s relationship with Starbucks wrote that the company has become so frustrated by the hate and intolerance on the platform that it may remove its Facebook page. Were Starbucks to do so, it would be one of the largest companies ever to sever ties with Facebook,” according to Buzz Feed.
Yet another choice is transparency, both Whole Foods and Starbucks offer salary transparency. Eileen Fisher and Everlane publish detailed supply chain information that not only pulls back the curtain for the customer to see, it encourages an informed perspective on the value proposition.
Just Do It
If a brand is hoping to ride it out until this activist moment passes remember, tribalism runs deep. It is time to upskill your leadership teams to hear the demands of the customers and stakeholders and determine where your brand can authentically engage. As Kotler said, “You are a brand activist now, whether you like it or not.”