The idea of corporations publicly taking on political and social positions not long ago was considered verboten. Now it seems almost mainstream. Yet companies need to understand that how they present their beliefs is critical, notes Eric Solomon in this opinion piece. He is a brand strategy director for Google. Earlier, he was global director of brand strategy for Spotify, and prior to that head of brand strategy and insights for YouTube.
And the Oscar Goes to …
This week’s Oscars 2017 broadcast brought us two noteworthy moments. The first, of course, is the one that everyone is talking about: the impossible Hollywood ending that carried on longer than anyone could have imagined. The second moment was far more subtle, but at least for those of us in the ad world, almost as interesting. For the first time since 2010, The New York Times aired a television spot.
Beautifully executed, the commercial takes a square aim at the “fake news” phenomenon that is consuming American politics today. The video itself builds with a chorus of opposing claims set in black text against a simple white background (e.g., “the truth is a woman should dress like a woman” vs. “the truth is women’s rights are human rights”), and builds to their poignant new tagline: “The truth is now more important than ever.” We are living during an unprecedented political age, so it’s no coincidence that The New York Times has chosen now to voice their strong point of view. But, they are by no means the only company taking a public stand on a burning issue – neither now, nor in the recent past.
Taking a Stand, More Than Ever
Having a dedicated point of view is something that defines some of the world’s most iconic, successful brands. This is a big part of what helps a brand differentiate itself from competition, and what helps to fill the gap between the products companies make and the emotional experience a brand idea can convey. For the past few years, it seems that more companies than ever are commenting directly on current social or political issues, communicating beliefs that extend far beyond internal sets of brand guidelines or values. We’ve seen Cheerios take a stand on racial issues and Honey Maid redefine the notion of what a wholesome family looks like. REI has closed their stores on Black Friday in the name of opting outside, and P&G is dedicated to getting people to think twice about what it means to do something “like a girl.” These examples are just the tip of the proverbial iceberg.
“The election of a new administration raised … important issues around populism, immigration, tensions around race and gender and the overarching question of what it means to be an American.”
Without a doubt, 2017 feels different. Regardless of one’s political persuasion, the election of a new administration has raised several important issues around populism, immigration, tensions around race and gender and the overarching question of what it means to be an American. The advertising industry has not kept silent on these and other issues, with several brands opting to spend significant budgets to express their points of view on big stages.
During Super Bowl LI, for example, football fans were exposed to company beliefs in new and surprising ways. We saw Budweiser tell their story of an immigrant founder; Airbnb unleashed an ode to acceptance; and 84 Lumber, a building-supply company, paid nearly $15 million to air a 90-second story about an immigrant’s journey from Mexico to America, only after having Fox deem a version showing a border wall “too controversial.” (84 Lumber sent viewers to view the ‘complete’ version on their site.) Another interesting take came from Audi of America, who caused unexpected waves by taking a stand for gender equality in the American workplace. And if all that commentary felt a bit heavy-handed, Saturday Night Live offered a salve in the name of parody.
When a Belief Is Called into Question
Now, back to Audi. Crafted by San Francisco-based Venables Bell & Partners, the ad itself has earned accolades for its cinematic approach to storytelling. A handful of executives have praised Audi’s ad publicly for pushing back hard on gender stereotypes. However, much of the commentary around the ad is critical. The conversation has really caught fire on YouTube: There are over 130,000 comments on the video to date, 56% of which are negative.
Some of this criticism is due to the reality of Audi’s own executive team and board, which reflect a marked lack of diversity. According to some, this may have led to a feeling that Audi is attempting to align themselves politically with an important issue without having the appropriate substantiation for their claims. This is a difficult position for Audi because they have communicated a point of view – one that they’re very likely committed to – which they are now obligated to defend, loudly and publicly. If Audi fails to do that, this calls into question the veracity of their belief; if they succeed, this raises questions about how gender diversity will play out for the brand and company moving forward.
“People expect companies to have a point of view on current cultural or political issues.”
This example, along with The New York Times’ example and others, illuminates an even grander question: What does it mean for a brand to have a point of view? What do brands or companies need to do in order to comment on political or social issues, and how should they best manage expressions of those beliefs when faced with adversity? Here are a few guidelines for organizational leaders.
Have a Belief System
Businesses play a big role in our lives. The products we use or consume can be integral to the way that we experience the world, and one role of the brand is to express an emotional reason why we might use or consume one thing over another. It can help to convey that emotional value through what Viacom’s Ross Martin calls a belief system. In a recent talk, Martin defines a belief system as a “clarity of purpose that unites, inspires and catalyzes the power and potential” of a business. Sometimes this belief system is core to a company’s heritage (REI holds a firm commitment to the outdoors); in other instances, beliefs have to be shaped over time (for Honey Maid, wholesome has evolved to equal diversity). In an ideal world, a belief system should permeate everything a company does and says. But, the first action may be for an organization to take a step back and ask: What is our point of view, and how do we express it?
People expect companies to have a point of view on current cultural or political issues. According to a 2014 study, around 75% of millennials believe that businesses should share a point of view about issues and should influence others to get involved in an issue. But people, especially younger people, can smell fakeness a mile away – and they aren’t afraid to call anyone out on it. Once a business develops and expresses a belief system, it must follow through on that point of view in a real, authentic way. Audi may believe that progress equals gender equality, but they need to commit to demonstrating how that belief connects the dots across all facets of their organization.
Actions Are More Important Than Words
Saying you believe in something is easy. Showing, unequivocally, that you believe something is much harder. During Super Bowl LI, we saw through advertising that Airbnb has a strong point of view about what acceptance means: “No matter who are you are, where you’re from, who you love, or who you worship, we all belong.” But #weaccept is an idea that is bigger than words on a screen. Airbnb is taking action by setting a goal to provide housing for 100,000 people in need, and they’re contributing $4 million to the International Rescue Committee to help support displaced populations globally. Those are actions that speak louder than words.
Prepare to Engage
Having a point of view on something sometimes means defending it. There will always be people who oppose a position – that’s the nature of opinions. For companies, this translates to having an engagement strategy when their belief system is under scrutiny or attack. When Honey Maid underscored wholesome as inclusive of same-sex and interracial families, some people didn’t like it. The brand reacted to that opposition by physically turning that negativity in something positive. Honey Maid may have anticipated that taking a stand would elicit some backlash, so they devised a strategy to reinforce their point of view.
Developing and maintaining a point of view is hard work for any organization. But we believe, when done well, it can fuel a major source of differentiation across a crowded, noisy landscape. As writer Elie Wiesel, once said: “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference.” When companies or brands lack a clear point of view, the net effect can often feel a lot like indifference.
[The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Google.]
[Photo credit: By Haxorjoe – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?]