OPINION13 January 2021

Should brands take a stand?

Media North America Opinion Trends UK

Chantel Le Carpentier looks at how businesses can tread the line between doing good and exploitation.

Black lives matter protest_crop

The past 10 years or so have seen brands publicly voicing their position on issues like LGBTQ+ and gender equality, racial injustice and sustainability.

The reactions to some campaigns have been broadly positive, like McCain’s inclusive ‘We Are Family’ campaign in 2017 and Ikea Canada, which enlisted drag queens for its 2018 DRAG campaign.

Others, however, have taken the reactive route. L’Oreal, for example, was recently criticised for declaring its support for Black Lives Matter when it emerged that before the protests it had not been practising what it was now preaching.

This is all new. In fact, racism used to actually sell products like Pear’s Soap in the early 19th century and sexism sold just about anything from cigarettes to soup.

Why are brands now speaking up? Quite simply; it works (when it’s done right).

Many consumers now expect their favourite brands to react to current events. YouGov research finds that when looking for a new company to purchase goods and services from, over a quarter ( 28%) of Brits care whether the company’s values align with their own, which rises to over a third ( 33%) among 18-24 year-olds.

Misguided campaigns can not only harm brands but can damage the reputation of the real-life social or political campaign they want to be associated with.

YouGov research in the US last year found that brands’ anti-racism statements after the killing of George Floyd were not received well, with 63% of Americans believing that these statements were pandering to consumers, rather than being born from a genuine commitment to fight racism.

Some brands will have also been paralysed into doing nothing for fear of getting it wrong.

But there is a way.

I’ve spent the last three years studying these campaigns and the consumer experience of marginalised groups. I believe that four questions have emerged that brands must be able to answer if they wish to operate authentically.

  1. Does the brand have authority on this subject?

You need to know if your brand can genuinely take space in this community or campaign. If you can’t; don’t.

For example, if you have a historically poor record on workers’ conditions, you will find it hard to authentically communicate a message around equality. It’s also got to make sense; if you’re an alcohol brand, doing something around supporting LGBT+ venues would be a sensible move, doing something for Muslim communities (for whom drinking is forbidden for many) – would be less so.

  1. What does the brand bring to the world?

What is the power that your brand has in just existing?

If you’re a bread, coffee, tea, soap or detergent brand, your product and messaging is in most people’s homes. A high street bank interacts with local communities and housing developers often have an insight into migrant worker communities. The list goes on.

Power isn’t just in the company’s direct aims, it’s often the by-product of the business.

  1. Who are businesses in a position to help?

Your products are in people’s homes and in their wallets; they see them every day. Through them, you gain access to the private sphere, where LGBT+ people might be first realising their identity and domestic abuse, depression and loneliness occurs. How can products help just by being there?

In 2017, HSBC made it possible for customers to use transgender titles on their account without legally changing their gender. This could explain why YouGov’s BrandIndex tool saw a significant increase in consideration for HSBC among gay, lesbian and bisexual people in Britain around the same period.

This was successful because the company understood how making a change to a credit card – something that people will see and carry around every day – was important in affirmation of their identity.

  1. What are you willing to give to the community?

You can’t gain meaningful access to a community or campaign without giving something up. It doesn’t always have to be financial – in fact, if it is just financial, it can be seen as tokenistic.

You could give a platform to black business owners or offer mentorships for young people from low income backgrounds. If you’re that coffee or bread brand could you commission local artists to create designs for your packaging?

It’s all about how you can pass the platform and voice you have built on to someone else. You should aim to do something with the community or enable them to do something rather than do for them.

Lastly, if you’re not personally from a minority or marginalised group, have conversations with your colleagues who are from those communities. Make a genuine effort to educate yourself and practise what you want your marketing campaign to preach; make sure there are diverse voices in the planning room as well as in your campaigns.

Chantel Le Carpentier leads YouGov’s research on underrepresented and minority groups for its global public and civic data team