The world has dealt with a lot in the first months of 2020. Events are changing how we live, think, do business, and how we’ll move forward. Fundamentally what we have are two very different energies tearing at our norms – powers of nature thrust upon us and long-standing societal choices coming home to roost. Both are forcing brands to evolve. But how should that happen?
As an agency that believes in the power of Brand to create positive change, we’re intensely curious about how businesses and organizations are responding. In March and April as coronavirus brought confusion and fear, we looked on, a little underwhelmed as brands adopted safe playbooks offering eerily similar messages with somber music, empty highways and refrains of “we’re all in this together.” But with time, many began to translate good wishes and hopes into action by helping local communities, finding ways to protect workers’ health and income, and start serving their customers again.
Today, coronavirus remains an ever-present danger, and brands are discovering the potential positive impact of a coordinated Black Lives Matter movement. Ultimately what we hope to see brands do, and what we advise clients to aim for, is commit to more than superficial change. Right now, we want to see brands take a leadership role by promoting discourse on systemic racism proactively, not only when their actions, communications or logo is called into question, or because other brands have done so.
Why though? Why do brands have a role to play in advancing social justice? We believe that as brands have evolved, creating deeper connections with consumers, having a personable voice in social media, asking us to consider them more human, they have responsibility to be more human and help move the rest of us humans forward.
As always, the best examples of brands in action are those making decisions through their brand lens. They ask, “applying our core values to the present moment, what are we capable of beyond our product or service?” “How do we align with our customers’, executives’ and employees’ stance on the issues?” “In our lane, what slack can we pick up? What can we do, functionally and emotionally, better than anyone else?”
As your brand weighs short- and long-term strategies, here are five critical actions that can guide you through the rest of this year and beyond:
1. Aim for substance
The easiest, quickest changes to make are at the surface. But we don’t advise stopping there because superficial tweaks in your brand communications or token actions don’t have the power to bring people along to your point of view. That’s hard work, true, but it can reap the greatest rewards in terms of making progress. NBCUniversal committed to a workforce made up of 50 percent people of color, 50 percent women. That’s impressive. Substantive action doesn’t have to be changes to workforce, logo or name (more below) but can go to the root of the problem. Netflix pledged to shift up to $100 million to banks and initiatives that serve Black communities. The potential impact is massive, helping make loans available to people who, historically, haven’t had access to investment capital. That’s a substantive change.
2. Be true to you
When looking for rules to play by, start with your brand. That’s why it was created, to establish traits and values that can guide your brands through whatever comes your way. If you don’t have a thoroughly thought out brand strategy that accounts for unforeseen scenarios, now is the perfect time to set down how you believe you should act during crisis or societal unrest. No brand could have planned for current events prescriptively, but strategically you can create a proactive brand that grows and provides a strong foundation from which to lead when the unexpected arrives. Because it will. We recommend your planning going far beyond reactive crisis communication, adopting aspirational thinking, and taking a hard look at the changes you need to make to live your values. Ben & Jerry’s progressive brand values emphasize deep respect for people inside and outside the company. While their reaction to George Floyd’s murder was extraordinary and unexpected in its detailed call for police and legislative reform, it was 100% authentic to what the brand stands for.
3. Re-align brand values with customers’ and employees’
Even brands led by charismatic frontrunners cease to exist without customers who share their passion and employees who bring the brand to life. That’s why it’s important to have a pulse on your customers’ POV and act on it. This isn’t a question of aligning with customers whether “they want change” vs. “they are cool with the status quo.” If your customers come down on the side of an issue that goes against your best moral judgment, it’s your opportunity as a public-facing entity to change hearts and minds. NASCAR recently angered some fans by banning displays of the confederate flag. While it may have been a calculated effort to gain brand awareness and expand its audience, we applaud it equally as an effort to bring a different perspective forward.
The most effective organizations are those in which the leaders and employees share the same beliefs, this is how trust is created and it applies to day-to-day business, as well as social issues. This moment is an amazing opportunity share corporate beliefs and get people on the same page.
4. Lead society forward
Brands don’t have to be as outspoken as Ben & Jerry’s to inspire progress. For decades, Land O’ Lakes, Aunt Jemima, Uncle Bens and others felt pressure to change racially offensive logos and names. 2020 is their time to act, hopefully bringing awareness to institutionalized prejudice. After Quaker Oats decided to rebrand Aunt Jemima by removing her image from packaging, NPR spoke to the niece of one of the women who served as the inspiration for the illustration, Lillian Richard. In the piece, she shared concerns that her aunt’s contribution to the brand will be erased, forgotten.
But what if Quaker Oats had taken it on themselves to talk to Richard’s family, and those of other brand ambassadors? The niece made a strong point – Richard’s was extremely proud of her role as Aunt Jemima at a time when few women worked, and even fewer black women could have had that level of visibility. Was it the right kind of visibility? Richard’s niece says she backs the logo change, but wishes Quaker Oats had started a conversation that could have celebrated the contribution women of color made to the brand. The situation is still evolving, and after consideration, we’d advise the brand to pick up the conversation where NPR left off.
Also evolving is the future of the Cleveland Indians and Washington Redskins. As the franchises take action (the Redskins have announced an interim name, the Washington Football Team, while the renaming project continues), it’s an opportunity to promote new beginnings, renewed energy and cultural relevance. The teams can claim not just being on the right side of history, but being part of this moment in our history by recognizing and building awareness for the Native American groups that have long been their symbols. How many organizations wish they could generate this much conversation around their brand, or be as relevant to the conversation?
While the changes to Aunt Jemima, the Washington Football Team and others are significant, product rebrands and even team name changes occur regularly, and consumers and fans still show up. Their success will rest on the ability to find an authentic voice that speaks to core values (new or existing) and re-build trust with consumers.
5. Increase authenticity and transparency
Today is also the perfect time for brands to come clean and publicly right wrongs they’ve made in the past. There are many examples to pick from, but the NFL is an easy one. In early June, the San Francisco 49ers told us that Black Lives Matter to them which is a step in the right direction. But there’s more that we’d recommend the brand do, given its past with Colin Kaepernick who they planned to release after he famously put police brutality awareness on the 50-yard line.
At the same time, the league itself apologized for not doing enough to hear players’ concerns on racial inequality. They’re moving the ball up the field, but critics say they’re not quite there yet. What could win them over? Trust may be forward looking, but it’s based on the past. The NFL will have to loudly proclaim its renewed values and live them every day. As the adage goes, actions speak louder than words.
Our advice on authenticity applies across the board for organizations’ well-intentioned reactions as well – they have to truly believe in something and commit for the long-haul. For instance, it’s encouraging to see company’s make Juneteenth a paid holiday this year, but if it’s not based on larger plan for promoting equality, awareness and education, the meaning risks getting lost.
People want to know what your brand stands for now Today, brands have made great progress becoming more human, allowing consumers a connection beyond products and services. What this means though is that people are more aware of how an organization’s actions jibe with stated values, and are not afraid to call out or cancel brands. This should not strike fear into brand managers, but demonstrate the opportunity to deepen affinity.