What is the Role of Brands in a World of Disgust and Dysfunction?

As we come to the close of 2016 and take stock of the tone of discourse throughout the year, one might describe the state of communication as one of disgust and dysfunction. From Twitter outbursts to the recent presidential campaign, our society’s tone of conversation and dialogue has shifted towards an accepted level of incivility.

What does that have to do with branding? Brands have a voice and impact society; they have the opportunity to step into an existing void to be a positive voice amidst the negative rhetoric. Interestingly, companies and brands have been held more accountable since the advent of the internet and social media and likely wouldn’t get away with using such dialogue and having such rants as we’ve heard this year. Yet, according to an October Pew Research Center report, while U.S. adults have more confidence that business leaders will act in the best interest of the public than elected officials (41 percent saying they have a great deal and a fair amount of confidence vs. 27 percent for elected officials), there is much room for improvement with 58 percent having not too much or no confidence of this. Thus, is it a possibility and a necessity that businesses and brands take this opportunity to actually “go high,” as Michelle Obama has coined, while others that influence society go low?

If you’re responsible for a brand, ask yourself: What can my brand do in this environment? If you want to take the high road, follow the lead of these companies that are setting an example by aligning their brand’s purpose with how they engage in the world to have a positive impact.

Build your brand and business with purpose.

If you want to be a positive influence, start here. Does your brand have a purpose? There are many companies that can serve as examples of following socially conscious business practices that get reflected in everything from their business models to marketing campaigns. Companies such as Toms, Warby Parker, and Everlane are younger companies that built purpose into their structures either through giving money or products to causes or bringing transparency to business practices and product manufacturing to raise awareness and quality of life for workers.

Chobani, the Greek yogurt company, is a successful socially responsible business that lives its purpose through its offerings and its actions. First, its products are made with intention—using local milk and other natural ingredients, and using authentic techniques and sustainable manufacturing practices. Second, it is managed with a strong set of beliefs and gives back through its foundation. Third, the founder and CEO Hamdi Ulukaya treats his employees well, going as far as to share the company’s success with them by giving all full-time employees a stake in the company. Finally, Ulukaya, a Turkish immigrant to the U.S., also supports the community, employing refugees and starting a foundation to help other companies assist in settling refugees.

REI is yet another company that also lives its ethos. Last year the company created a stir and a lot of copycats with its holiday marketing campaign #OptOutside that was perfectly aligned to its principles. REI closed its doors on Black Friday and instead encouraged not only its customers, but also its employees, to enjoy getting outside. For a company focused on outfitting people for the outdoors, it was a perfect display of purpose and principles aligned with brand behaviors and action.

Use your voice and set a different tone.

Earlier this year Starbucks came forward to address race relations in the U.S. after the events in July with the killings of black men by police and the killings of police officers in Dallas. According to a CBS/New York Times poll at the time, 68 percent of Americans believed that race relations were bad, a level not seen since 1992 around the time of the Rodney King verdict. In response, Starbucks acknowledged its role and presence in communities across the country, aligned with its longstanding strategy of being the “third place” for people to gather, and released a statement to promote unity and togetherness through a collection of songs offered on Spotify and played in its stores. The idea was rooted in how music can serve as a unifying force in society. According to the company’s press release, Starbucks founder and CEO Howard Schultz said, “I am deeply troubled by the events of not only the past week, but the last few years as we face the dysfunction and discord present in our great nation. With stores in nearly every community across America, Starbucks has long served as a place for connection. And while ours is but a small role to play, I am humbled and honored to share this curated music selection during a time when our country needs to heal and demonstrate empathy for one another more than at any recent time in our history.”

Schultz has used his position and his company to make his opinions known and stand up for many important causes. It started even with his commitment early in the company’s history to provide comprehensive healthcare benefits to part-time and full-time employees, called partners. So it wasn’t surprising that the day after the Presidential election he sent a message to Starbucks’ partners titled, “Onward Together.” It presented a positive message not just to the company’s employees, but to the world, on how we can respectfully move forward together: “I am hopeful that we will overcome the vitriol and division of this unprecedented election season…. Whether you are pleased or disappointed by the outcome, we each still have a choice. Today and every day, we have a choice in how we treat one another in our homes, in our neighborhoods, and of course in our stores….” Schultz didn’t have to say anything, but again understood his role and power to set a positive example.

Take action and leverage your platform.

Patagonia, the outdoor clothing brand and champion for the environment, continues to be a model for brands that want to be authentic, live by their purpose, and influence the world around them. Take this past election season—Patagonia stayed true to its beliefs in supporting the environment and encouraged people to get involved by voting for the environment. The company invested in advertising (and not inexpensive advertising, with placements on the front of the New York Times digital edition) to promote its Vote our Planet program, which was supported by helpful information on its website and the hosting of local events to get people involved and get out the vote. In addition, the company was closed on election day to encourage voting. Aligned with their commitment to the cause, the company had a post-election message on their website to continue to engage and activate their consumers: “As citizens, let’s let the divisiveness go and rise to our better natures. Let’s come together and hold those we’ve elected accountable for action in the face of our environmental crisis…. We can and we must approach climate change and all complex challenges with reason and humility—and work together to protect our planet, our one and only home.”

Inspire with motivations, not expectations.

Brands have an opportunity to play a more positive role in society by projecting positive messages, given that we are all susceptible to media and marketing messages. It is more powerful to align with personal motivations rather than setting unrealistic expectations.

This year, Unilever, which has the second highest advertising budget in the world, made a pledge to do just that with a promise to eliminate stereotypes in its advertising, especially around women. The company conducted a global ad study and found that stereotyping was more problematic in how it showed women, finding not only that just 2 percent of ads show intelligent women, but also that 40 percent of women didn’t feel represented in advertising at all. Chief Marketing Officer Keith Weed said, “The time is right for us as an industry to challenge and change how we portray gender in our advertising…. Our industry spends billions of dollars annually shaping perceptions and we have a responsibility to use this power in a positive manner.”

Nike and Dove are two other companies that present examples of how brands can more positively influence through their marketing. Nike’s support of women athletes has been strong for decades. Many of us are still positively impacted by the “If You Let Me Play” campaign from the 1990’s, but as you can see here on their site that the company has championed women’s athletes for some time. Similarly, Dove’s Real Beauty campaign has been running for over 10 years now. Both brands ­dug deep and rooted their messaging in the understanding of women’s underlying true motivations associated with their categories.

Conclusion

Through these examples one senses a responsibility felt by these companies and brands. They understand their power and their ability to have impact. They are raising our level of dialogue and taking positive action for the betterment of our society, closely aligned with their brand purposes. Brands can take the high road and treat consumers with respect and civility. In this time of disgust and dysfunction, there’s an opportunity for brands to live their purpose, use their voice, leverage their platforms, and lead and inspire. What choices can you make as a brand leader to have a positive influence on the world?

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