The silence of the brands

My mates, who don't know the first thing about PR, think that I spend my time telling companies how to say things that people want to hear.

Brands should stand up and be counted, writes Gerry Hopkinson at Unity
Brands should stand up and be counted, writes Gerry Hopkinson at Unity
It’s a fair assumption, when you look at how many brands behave. 

Someone pipes up and says that your latest ad, tweet etc, is rude, ageist, demeaning to short people and, nine times out of ten, you issue a grovelling apology and kill the campaign.  

Never mind whether it was any of those things – it’s enough that someone, anyone, doesn’t like it. 

This behaviour has led brands to either produce bland and forgettable comms or, worse, flip-flop more times than a high jumper. What it hasn’t done, in most cases, is get the majority of us to like that brand any more or feel pretty much anything – anger or otherwise.

Perhaps more worryingly, the constant caving in to whomever might be complaining is eroding free speech and creating a culture of self-censorship.

Of course brands should care about public opinion and they should strive to be a force for good but, in the end, they have a duty and a right to speak up for what they believe.

As was pointed out to me recently, Yves Chouinard, the founder of Patagonia, said, "If you’re not pissing off 50 per cent of the people, you’re not trying hard enough." 

This isn’t such a surprising thing for him to have said when you learn that he’s an ardent environmentalist and a critic of mindless consumerism.

What? The guy who runs a clothing company thinks people buy too much stuff? Yes, and he tells them all the time. 

His brand makes clothes that last, that have a function and that don’t harm the environment – not because he heard that’s what the kids like but because that’s what he believes. 

This belief drives his actions and those of his company. 

He thinks people who spend all their time shopping are losers and don’t even get him started on Black Friday. So who cares what an ageing hippy says? Well, considering how fast his brand is growing, lots of people do.

But he’s not alone. Tim Cook at Apple stood up to the US government and public opinion because his company doesn’t want to erode personal freedom.

This isn’t a new idea. 

Once upon a time, businesses used to do what they believed. Henry Ford famously paid his workers $5 a day when the average wage was $2.50. He did it because he thought people needed money to afford things such as cars. 

I’m not saying he was a saint; I’m saying he didn’t ask permission to do what he thought was right. 

Today, too many brands are scared of their own shadows – scared of saying what they think for fear of criticism. Someone will always find fault with something you do. 

Sure, brands should listen and be brave enough to change their minds, but they should also be brave enough to stand their ground when it’s worth defending.

Gerry Hopkinson is Co-founder of Unity

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