DUBAI: Last weekend, users took to social media to call out big brands that continued to operate in Russia after its invasion of Ukraine, sparking the trend of hashtags such as #BoycottCocaCola and #BoycottPepsi, among others, on Twitter.
Within days, the two soda giants, along with McDonald’s, Starbucks and others, had announced the suspension of their activities in Russia.
This isn’t the first time consumers have called out brands for their actions or lack of action. Last year, ice cream maker Ben and Jerry’s announced it would stop selling its products in the occupied Palestinian territory. In an op-ed for The New York Times, founders Bennett Cohen and Jerry Greenfield said they were “proud Jews” and that “it is possible to support Israel and oppose some of its policies “.
The decision sparked both praise and hate online, with some consumers accusing the company of anti-Semitism – Ben and Jerry’s was very well known to the public anyway.
“Ben and Jerry’s has a very long history of political positioning and commitment to a variety of progressive causes,” Robert Haigh, director of strategy and insights at Brand Finance, told Arab News. He added that Unilever had acquired the company in 2000, so the dynamic could change eventually.
“For the sake of continuity of the Ben and Jerry’s brand, they continue to be relatively outspoken and committed to (the causes), whereas Unilever is a bit more measured in what they seek to do,” raising concerns. questions about the independence and authenticity of the brand, he said.
Authenticity is paramount for brands in their conversations with customers and in the causes they choose to support, and an organization’s political activity is a “very controversial topic”, according to Seth Hand, chief executive of the communications marketing company Edelman Middle East. .
“However, one thing to keep in mind is that your actions should be authentic to who you are as an organization and consistent with your values,” he added.
This sentiment was echoed by Alisa D’Souza, founder and public relations consultant of Alisa PR.
“Brands need to establish their core values; they need to know who they are, define their identity, be strong in their core values and know what their company stands for,” she said.
Consumers increasingly expect brands to join the conversation and stand up for something. According to a 2021 study by Edelman, for which researchers surveyed consumers from 14 countries, including the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, 86% of people said they expect brands to take action that go beyond their product lines and business.
On Twitter, nearly half (48%) of respondents agreed that it’s “more important now for brands to support economic, social, political or cultural issues, even when the issue doesn’t directly affect them, ( than it was) a year ago.”
For brands, it is indeed a question of ethics and morality versus profit, even if the perceived morality of a company is increasingly linked to its profits.
Some argue that a company’s only priority is to serve the interests of its owners or shareholders, Haigh said.
“Other people often say, and I think it’s becoming more and more common, that companies have a broader set of stakeholders that they talk to and should talk to,” he added. .
Hand pointed out that in the past, many organizations prioritized profit over purpose.
“Even today, not all organizations see purpose as a key business priority,” he added, “However, the digital world has changed the communications paradigm, and consumers now have significant power. to hold organizations to account and expect them to use their power and influence to advocate for positive change in society.
Many consumers and employees want brands to play a bigger role in addressing issues like climate change, economic inequality, workforce retraining and racial injustice. Nearly 60% of consumers choose brands based on their values and beliefs, according to the 2022 Edelman Trust Barometer.
However, Haigh warned brands to be wary of engaging in “mission-driven brand building”.
“Nobody likes that, but there are limits to how much you can build your brand on that,” he said. “As beneficial as it may be, there is a limit to the interest of the average consumer.”
Consumers may express outrage on social media about a brand’s actions, or lack thereof, but does that necessarily mean they’ll actually stop buying its products in protest?
“What people do online and offline can differ significantly,” said Alex Malouf, communications professional and board member of the MENA Public Relations and Communications Association.
“They may tweet a negative view of a brand, but they often don’t follow through.”
For brands themselves, the decision to align publicly with a cause, political or otherwise, can lead to backlash.
In 2019, Gillette, Procter and Gamble’s men’s grooming brand, updated its 30-year-old advertising slogan from “The Best A Man Can Get” to “The Best Men Can Be” in an effort to solve the problem of toxic masculinity. The change sparked fury from some online, with several commentators calling on the company to issue an apology and threatening to boycott.
Nike faced a similar situation following an ad campaign featuring former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, whose decision to take a knee during the playing of the national anthem before games to protest racism and police brutality was a polarizing issue in American society.
“Nike has made a very open domestic political statement by aligning itself with him,” Haigh said.
The campaign generated a lot of controversy, including some people filming themselves burning their Nike shoes and posting the videos on social media.
On the other hand, Haigh said, “there are a huge number of people for whom the Nike brand has been re-energized” because it has aligned itself with a younger, more progressive audience.
In 2015, UAE-based telecommunications company Etisalat came under fire for its star-studded #EtisalatChallenge campaign. The premise was quite simple: it challenged users to find a better price than that offered by Etisalat, and promised to match or surpass it.
What could be wrong with that? Well, for one thing, there are only two telecommunications companies in the UAE, Etisalat and du, both of which are partly government-owned.
Etisalat’s campaign hashtag was quickly hijacked by social media audiences who instead used it to complain about the brand and “challenge” it to solve customer issues.
“Despite the obvious backlash from the campaign, Etisalat persevered with the #EtisalatChallenge,” Malouf wrote on his blog at the time.
“In today’s unpredictable world, reputations can be made – or lost – in the blink of an eye,” according to Hand.
While brands should invest in crisis communications planning, it should be part of a broader reputation-building strategy, he said.
“Organizations that truly value their reputation work proactively to build trust with their stakeholders, embody strong values, communicate transparently and address key societal issues,” he added.