Facebook campaign highlights the power of brands, but activism is not risk free

A move by companies not to advertise on one social media platform in July reflects a growing trend but businesses must ensure that greater social responsibility becomes part of their DNA

Coca-Cola. Diageo. Honda. The Hershey Company. The North Face. Unilever. Verizon. Just seven of more than 160 brands that signed up to the #StopHateForProfit campaign, in which organisations pledged not to advertise on Facebook’s services in July in a bid to encourage it to “meaningfully address the vast proliferation of hate on its platforms”. The campaign is a powerful reminder of the sway that high-profile brands can have at a time when many consumers are expecting to see action rather than words.

The initiative was launched by a coalition of organisations and was positioned as a response to the social media behemoth “amplifying the messages of white supremacists, permitting incitement to violence, and failing to disrupt bad actors using the platform to do harm”. Thus, it called on large corporate advertisers to “send Facebook a powerful message: Your profits will never be worth promoting hate, bigotry, racism, antisemitism and violence”.

In late June, Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg made his move,  unveiling a number of new policies to be adopted ahead of the 2020 US elections “to connect people with authoritative information about voting, crack down on voter suppression, and fight hate speech”. However, the announcement did not quell the protests. All in all, the boycott – and Facebook’s initial $56 billion share price plunge in response to it – clearly illustrate how powerful brand action can be.

The campaign follows on from recent corporate responses to the Black Lives Matter movement, which has seen a number of brands proactively donating to the cause, or – as is the case with the likes of PepsiCoMars and Dreyer’s – acknowledging the need to replace long-standing logos and characters that have drawn on or perpetuated racial stereotypes. It has been a pivotal period for brands seeking to flex their muscles and encourage change on a political and social level.

But should we – or Facebook – be surprised that brands have taken up the mantle from governments when it comes to demanding action on political and social issues? Not if you have been paying attention to the demands of consumers.

At INTA’s recent Brands in Society: Their Influence and Responsibility event, Jennifer Cohan, president of Edelman New York, gave a keynote focused on the communications firm’s consumer sentiment data. One of the megatrends that she highlighted was (in real contrast to a distrust of government) consumer expectations that businesses and CEOs will drive change in society.

Characterising brands as “the new democracy”, in which consumers believe that companies should serve as stakeholders in society rather than shareholders, Cohan noted that in recent polling, 62% of consumers stated that their country would not make it through the covid-19 crisis without help from brands. In addition, 75% affirmed that CEOs must lead the change rather than wait for the government to do so. In short, brand trust is high – but so are expectations.

This was echoed in another study recently covered by  World Trademark Review. Undertaken by consumer data specialist Resonate, the ‘State of Your Customer Report’ study examined different generations of US consumers’ brand expectations of. It found that “73% of US consumers believe product and service-based companies should put a stake in the ground to represent their values”. What is more, acting or failing to act has consequences, as 60% stated that they had taken some form of positive or negative action in response to a brand’s actions.

Thus, the age-old approach of passivity no longer works. And, in an environment in which proactive action is expected, customers will vote with their wallets.

The key is authenticity. Not all companies have a long history of activism and only a handful have made it an intrinsic part of their story from the outset; the Ben and Jerry’s of the world are few and far between in the big brand environment. However, where risks are taken, consumers will embrace brands that are deemed to be genuine in their intent and keen to encourage change for change’s sake, even if it sparks a backlash in some quarters.

Consider Nike. It walked directly into a political firestorm two years ago when collaborating with the then NFL quarterback and human rights activist Colin Kaepernick on a high-profile ad campaign. The move was made while the controversy over players taking the knee during the US national anthem in protest against racial injustice was at its height. While there were initial calls for a boycott of the sportswear brand, it held its course, highlighting an issue that still persists today. It now appears firmly on the right side of history.

On the flip side, those seeking short-lived opportunity in the current environment face enormous risk. Edelman’s data uncovered that while 64% of US consumers said that they would boycott a brand based on how it acts on racial injustice, two-thirds would turn their backs on that brand if the action is not deemed meaningful.

While brands are certainly at a watershed moment, action needs to be sustained. Whether responding to the covid-19 pandemic, engaging with the Black Lives Matter movement or putting pressure on social media companies to focus on the integrity of their platforms, the past few months have shown how genuinely effective brand action can be. Not only does it raise awareness of fundamental issues, but it enhances brand reputation and builds increased buy-in from consumer bases. It really can be a win-win situation.

Brand affinity is powerful. However, it will be destroyed in no time at all if companies fall back on old passivity – or are deemed not to have truly made social responsibility a part of their DNA.

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