Building a brand in the age of consumer outrage and virtue signalling

If businesses aren’t careful, the mob will be out with their pitchforks and torches as it seems firms need to tread very lightly when marketing their brand or run the risk of igniting fury, warns brand communications specialist Leon Emirali

Building a brand in the age of consumer outrage and virtue signalling

Few brands are left unscathed in this climate of hyper-sensitivity. This month’s victims range from British budget supermarket Iceland to high-end fashion label Dolce & Gabbana. Indeed, companies across the spectrum are navigating a new world of delicate consumers.

In Iceland’s case, the food retailer created a Christmas TV advertisement that caused uproar after it was deemed too political, which resulted in it being banned. For Dolce & Gabbana, the fashion super-brand was accused of racism after launching its #DGLovesChina marketing campaign.

At a time of media overload, it sometimes feels like we cannot pick up a newspaper, turn on the telly or browse social media without being bombarded with stories about social and moral faux pas committed by some of the world’s most well-known organisations.

As someone who has advised the likes of Sky, Mercedes-Benz and Alibaba Group over the years, take it from me that brands face a painstaking and daily struggle to avoid an infinite number of cultural landmines.

How did we get here? The dawn of social media has given consumers an instant platform for musing and thinking aloud. Scroll through the mentions of any major brand on Twitter and you will see a host of users calling out brands and seeking a corporate scalp, and sometimes they succeed. Kleenex dropped its ‘Mansize’ branding after a Twitterstorm, Paperchase pulled its advertising in a major newspaper after social media users disapproved.

As a consequence of this online hysteria, brands have been forced to pivot and are beginning to tap into the psyche of the new consumer. Whereas the marketing adage of “sex sells” once held true, today’s brands look towards something much more wholesome. Activism and championing social justice are now amongst the most effective tools in the marketing armoury.

From Starbucks’ commitment to employ 10,000 refugees to Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty, savvy brands are positioning themselves as vessels for consumers to express their moral values. These brands offer much more than coffee or soap – they’re offering a badge of honour that provides a narrative about the moral choices of the consumer.

Despite being embroiled in controversy over its tax arrangements in the UK, Starbucks’ very public championing of social issues has allowed it to build sufficient social capital to remain relatively unharmed. Perhaps today’s consumers are willing to overlook normally crippling misdemeanours if the brand in question is associated with seeking to alleviate wider societal issues. Although the coffee brand was accused of tax evasion after paying just £8.6m in corporation tax in the UK over a 14-year period, Starbucks is the fifth most-admired brand in the world.

On the other side of the Atlantic, Nike’s embrace of Colin Kaepernick, the divisive American football player who famously knelt as a protest against racism and police brutality during the national anthem, is indicative of the new kind of strategies organisations are deploying when articulating their brand. On the release of an advert starring Kaepernick, Nike sparked major protests and a 2% dip in the sportswear brand’s stock price, although it soon recovered. This short-term pain paved the way for Nike to nail its colours to the mast as a champion of civil rights. This wasn’t an accident. Nike will have crunched the numbers and realised it could afford to alienate a minority of its consumer base to further resonate with the majority. Brands are now expected to ‘take a side’.

And this approach isn’t going away. Millennials, the generational cohort of which I belong, are famously motivated by social and moral issues and are often accused of being ‘social justice warriors’ and ‘snowflakes’. Snowflakes or not, Millennials are undisputedly the largest generation in history and, as we approach our peak earning and spending years, we will pack some serious spending power. Smart companies awake to this are creating brands that appeal to a mind-set that’s increasingly at odds with those of preceding generations.

Fondness of tradition, respect of authority, a sense of national identity – the characteristics that defined baby boomers are to be flung out of the window as brands clamour to chase the new dominant spenders. The demand for moral and social sensitivity could lead to difficulties for some of the more established brands that have built their identities around conflicting values. The established giants of yesteryear, the likes of Proctor & Gamble, HP and IBM, simply can’t compete with millennial darlings Apple, Amazon and Netflix. And that’s a problem that will only get worse.

Whether they like it or not, brands have no choice but to adapt in the era of hyper-sensitivity and virtue signalling. Their reputations, and profits, depend on it. 

Leon Emirali
Leon Emirali

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