Banishing Wallflower Brands

6 Jul


A version of this appeared in MediaPost’s Marketing Daily. The last week of June marked an incredible turn of events in the United States, with the Supreme Court decision legalizing gay marriage and a massive surge of support for sweeping away the Confederate flag.

In all the celebration, and amidst all the noise, it was perhaps easy to overlook that American brands just entered a new chapter, one of full citizenship on social causes.

By the week’s end there was no longer any doubt that being a national or global brand means being ready to take an active role in the national discourse. Gone are the days of staying silent or taking milquetoast stances for fear of alienating a portion of the customer base.

The week of this transformation began with a debate few would have predicted. Five days after nine people were killed in a Charleston church by a racist gunman, Walmart announced the removal of Confederate-themed merchandise from its shelves. The retail giant said in a statement, “We never want to offend anyone with the products that we offer.”, eBay, Sears and Etsy soon followed, pulling the imagery from their inventory. Simultaneously, a flurry of pronouncements came from state legislatures across the South that long-revered flags would come down.

“Walmart and Amazon are behemoths. When they make a move like this, it is going to affect the national conversation,” said Margaret Duffy, Chair of the Strategic Communication Program at University of Missouri’s School of Journalism. Their actions can be attributed, in part, to calculations of what the backlash would be if they were caught up in a controversy, she said.

“But the calculations are only part of what’s happening,” Duffy said. “If you’re in marketing you are radically in the culture business. If you’re going to be any good you have to understand that.”

Last spring brands such as Apple, and Subaru took active roles campaigning against religious freedom bills that would have provided legal protection for companies refusing service in circumstances that violated their beliefs. These weren’t brands in crisis, issuing statements to fend off angry customers. Yet without their involvement and willingness to take a stand, there may have been no change at all. Ultimately Indiana and Arkansas both revised laws to address the issues raised.

The inflection point for this wave of activism may well be Coca-Cola’s 2014 Super Bowl commercial featuring a diverse set of Americans singing the patriotic classic “America the Beautiful” in their native languages. While many lauded the brand, there was also ample backlash at the song being in anything other than English.

Since then, marketers have pushed further – in commercials such as Cheerios featuring an interracial couple and their daughter, and Tylenol celebrating all kinds of families. On the flip side, brands like Chick-fil-A have staked positions opposing gay marriage, and Hobby Lobby continues to take a stance against insurance coverage of contraception.

By the time the Supreme Court ruled in favor of same-sex marriage, many marketing departments were primed and ready to join the celebration with expressions of support and rainbow-themed logos. Just hours after the ruling was handed down, Facebook enabled users to create rainbow versions of their profile pictures. Within 48 more than 26 million people were sporting rainbow profile images, according to Facebook.

“Only a few short years ago it was rare for companies and brands to weigh in on social issues, but today they’re willing to take stands to take on culturally relevant causes,” said Kevin Keith, Chief Strategy Officer at J. Walter Thompson Atlanta.

“They’re realizing benefits from consumers who value brands that stand for something – rather than risking the PR nightmare of being on the defense,” he said.

Being on the offense means taking a hard look at what the brand stands for, long before current events force the issue. That calculus includes at least three critical elements: What are the corporate values? What are the values of the audience? And what are the values of the company’s employees and partners?

Most importantly, the new citizenship requires bold moves. The days of wallflower brands are gone.