On December 4, 2017, consumers in search of jackets and hats found a black page with stark white lettering announcing their property had been stolen by the President of the United States. It was bold, and a little doomsday-esque, and because it was Patagonia, it was a move in complete brand authenticity. Today more brands than ever are taking public stands on social and political issues. Should yours?
The short answer is, it depends.
Since its inception, Patagonia has vowed to protect the world it lives in. When public lands become a matter of public debate, Patagonia’s longstanding history of providing both verbal and financial influence feels completely apropos.
But proceed with caution. Not every brand can and should say something on every single issue that arises.
Pepsi and Black Lives Matter
We all know this one, not because it worked, but because it didn’t. Kendall Jenner offered a beverage as the solution to an extremely complex and nuanced debate. Instead of Pepsi helping bridge gaps in social misunderstandings and perceived wrongdoing, they appeared to capitalize for gain on a sociopolitical crisis.
With so much opportunity to do it wrong, does it make sense to venture into the public sphere beyond the scope of your business? According to recent surveys, yes, it does. Nearly two-thirds of Americans want to support brands who align with their values, and close to 90% of millennials surveyed state they want to know where their favorite brands stand politically.
Uber and the rise of Lyft
In 2016, a taxi strike at New York’s JFK airport meant transportation was limited, and Uber decided to suspend rate hikes while continuing to offer rides during the strike. Unfortunately the decision was seen as a transparent misstep. On the other hand, Lyft donated money to the ACLU within 24 hours. To some, Lyft was seen as opportunistic; to others, they were a brand who was willing to do more than just try to make money. But it remains a lesson to all who wish to provide a statement, whether literally or figuratively.
So when does it make sense? Let’s look at brands that get it right.
The Vermont-based home products company may have become acquired by giant Unilever, but their core values remain: they want to create products that protect, not harm, the homes that use them. Their involvement in environmentally friendly causes fits their aims, as does their mission to bring ethics back into the corporate boardroom.
Ben & Jerry’s
Ironically also from Vermont, the ice cream company isn’t just about making delicious treats that add marginally empty calories to your diet — they donate to individuals and campaigns that promise to further the causes the brand stands behind, such as eliminating hormones in milk. As a company that aims to lead the way for capitalist companies to be socially conscious, Ben & Jerry’s current involvement might not resonate with every ice cream lover out there, but it fits the company’s roots.
In 2015 REI released their Black Friday campaign #OptOutside. The brand was willing to forego any potential revenue increase of the most popular shopping day of the year, trusting that it would earn that revenue back in good faith by loyalists who agreed with REI’s values. What was once seen as a drastic and bold move is becoming more commonplace as more and more retailers state that 2018 holiday shopping can begin after the Thanksgiving holiday, but REI remains the most authentic leader in the practice.
If you’re questioning what sort of involvement your brand can have, you need to ask yourself the following questions:
- Does it feel genuine, or is it simply a response that can lead to some sort of “gain”?
- Will it coincide with or contradict our current belief system?
- Is it motivated by authenticity?
Some brands who speak publicly in support of or against a sociopolitical issue face the very real possibility they’ll alienate a large portion of their consumer base. But in today’s age where consumers know more about brands than they ever have before, consumers are already shopping authentically. If your public voice aligns with your brand voice, the odds are strong that your consumer core will rally with you.