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If you’re a brand that gives a shit, then show it

The TV ad begins with a room full of people. All Danish, but different. Men, women, teens and children look uncomfortable standing together and the voice-over begins. “There’s us and there’s them. The high earners and those just getting by. The people from the countryside and those who’ve never seen a cow. The religious and the self-confident.” People look awkwardly at each other until a man asks whether anyone’s been the class clown, and a handful of strangers step up. Then he asks whether anyone’s a step-parent, been bullied, or seen a UFO? Have they had sex recently? Are they lonely? Or have they ever saved a life? As people come together with shared experiences, the viewer sees how quickly we can go from categorising to feeling part of a community. In three minutes we’re reminded of our joint humanity.

Given the current international rhetoric on facism, exclusionism and racism, the ad, from TV2 in Denmark, is revolutionary. It’s a bold move for any brand or business to make a political or social stance. The world is full of individuals having opinions, loudly, right now. That’s our right. But should brands, with the weight and financial muscle they can put behind messages, also be speaking up?

CEO of Uber, Travis Kalanick, experienced the backlash of not taking a stance in New York recently. Taxi drivers at JFK airport imposed a strike in protest to President Trump’s barred entry on Muslim travellers. Uber ignored the strike, then quickly tried to justify why, and found themselves being publicly deleted in a Twitter storm.

Brands are a set of values—shared values— which people can identify with. A solid brand is very clear about its values, and when people identify with it, they feel better about themselves.

Adam Morgan, author of Eating the Big Fish, says “A Lighthouse brand is one that has a very clear sense of where it stands, and why it stands there. This sense of self is built on rock.”

Lonely Hearts lingerie stands for positive body image. Shoe company Toms stands for children’s equality. Patagonia stands for environmental protection and sustainability. The Economist stands for truth. But can a brand move away from its core values and have a wider opinion, like an individual?

Kate Smith from KC Consulting, who’s spent years working with different clients at Saatchi & Saatchi and Eat Big Fish, says taking a political or social stance can increase a brand’s loyalty. “Personally, I think that brands that choose to speak out and support causes that matter to them (and take the consequences) will be stronger as a result of increased identification and loyalty among users who share those values. As to whether it is the duty of brands to speak out, I think it depends on what category they are in – definitely for media and tech brands, less so for fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) brands.”

Karma Cola wanted to support the Women’s March on Washington recently. But could we, as an FMCG brand, dare to have an opinion on women’s rights? We care about organic and Fairtrade ingredients and the livelihood of farmers in countries like Sierra Leone, but we’re not The Guardian or The New York Times—brands you expect to speak up on such matters.

Our Ginger Ale character, Gingerella, has a tagline that says ‘Taste the Justice’. She fights for fair wages for ginger and vanilla farmers in Sri Lanka, many of whom are females. She also fights for acceptance of redheads and is already a fighter of human rights. And as the tagline for the Women’s March was ‘women’s rights are human rights’ we decided Gingerella could, and should, have an opinion.

The image supporting the pussyhat march was hotly debated in the office. Can we say ‘pussy’ in the post? (‘No!’ the females yelled). We’re a fizzy drink, can we have an opinion on this serious issue (‘Yes!’ the males yelled).

The results blew us away. It was the most-liked post we have ever put out on Facebook in New Zealand and Australia. Ever. And on Instagram in the UK it was the same, reaching thousands of people in our target market.

However, political and social opinions will always ignite negativity. This comment came through on Facebook that made us jump so quickly you could hear ankles cracking: “You sell a soft drink, nobody gives a shit about your political opinion nor do they want to hear it. Maybe you should just stick to posting on your own personal timeline…”

But making a stand should push buttons. The trick is to never be defensive or too quick in your response (as Uber discovered). We politely told the commenter that our whole business is based on giving a shit, thank you very much.

We took a stance on the Women’s March because we wanted to stand up for what’s right. The march reflected serious unrest. People everywhere were feeling helpless, and we, as a business, felt that too. If a brand is a core set of values, then the strong ones are in touch with people and the current zeitgeist.

Kantar Millward Brown, an international market research company, did an in-depth study into Gen Z’s behaviours—ours, and many brands’ core target market—and concluded that “brands need to adapt quickly to keep pace and stay relevant to a new generation.”

As a brand, if you don’t have opinions, if you don’t have values, if you don’t behave in a way that fits with your business in a relevant way, then how will your core target ever connect and stay loyal to you? Otherwise, you’re just a string of marketing hyperbole.

As Howard Schultz, ex-CEO of another FMCG brand, Starbucks, says: “In this ever-changing society, the most powerful and enduring brands are built from the heart. They are real and sustainable. Their foundations are stronger because they are built with the strength of the human spirit. The companies that are lasting are those that are authentic.”

Here’s to more humanity in marketing. And business. Because the world needs it. 

  • Angela Barnett is the chief of propaganda and dark arts at Karma Cola. ([email protected])

This article originally appeared in the Agency Perceptions issue of NZ Marketing. 

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