Should brands weigh in on the ‘issues’? Only if they understand their audiences

A new report from the Centre for Policy Studies, by George W Bush’s former adviser Frank Luntz, looks at the issues causing division in the UK and is dismissive of the role that brands should play in tackling them.

The stakes are high when it comes to brand activism, warns Sam Holl
The stakes are high when it comes to brand activism, warns Sam Holl

When asked how businesses can be good corporate citizens, just nine per cent of people said ‘speaking out on social issues’, putting it in last place – comfortably behind ‘developing and training a workforce’ (31 per cent), ‘investing in communities’ (27 per cent) and ‘delivering products that improve quality of life’ (20 per cent).

Conversely, other studies – such as Accentures’s ‘From Me To We’ – show that many groups, particularly young people, want brands to take a stand.

So which approach is right? The answer, of course, is that both are – but it depends on who your audience is.

The stakes are high. A strong stance on issues can build loyalty and advocacy among particular audience groups. But brands who misjudge their approach risk accusations of hypocrisy, ignorance and bandwagon-jumping. You can turn off consumers who don’t want to get their politics from a cereal packet or laundry detergent.

Audience insight is therefore key. However, recognising the preferences of target groups has been made harder by growing pressure to turn brand purpose into activism. Loud and passionate voices, particularly on social media, are calling for businesses to take a stand on social and environmental issues.

Before doing so, however, brands should work through three fundamental questions: “Is it a good cause?”, “Do we have anything meaningful to say?” and “Who are we saying it to?”.

Without clear answers, they should be careful about diving in. At best, they will sound inauthentic; at worst, they could inflame tensions.

We should remember that there are different ways to tell stories about who you are, what you stand for and what you believe in.

In fact, there are three routes available:

Change narratives, which are about fighting injustice and take a stand on one side of an argument. A classic example of a brand that takes this approach is Patagonia.

Community narratives, which bring people together and focus on taking care of people and the world around you. John Lewis is a brand that takes this approach.

Utility narratives, which focus on personal flourishing and help customers live their best lives. Porsche has followed this route since its inception.

All three routes can be the basis for powerful and emotive campaigns that celebrate purpose and all of them allow brands take an activist stance. Crucially, however, there are differences between how brands tell those stories – and in how audiences will react to them.

Brands can anticipate and overcome these risks by clearly defining who their audiences are, understanding the expectations they have of the businesses and brands they engage with, and measuring how well the brand itself is meeting those expectations.

Only then will brand activism translate into loyalty, advocacy, sales or a measurable improvement in reputation.

Sam Holl is a director at Engine MHP

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