Brands today must navigate social change like never before. Consumers are increasingly factoring how brands treat the environment, employee working conditions, diversity, gender inequality, etc., into their purchase decisions. Marketers are often quick to develop messaging that rides popular support on trending issues. However, they are finding that there are many aspects they need to consider more thoroughly before trumpeting their progressiveness.
A major issue that hurts a brand’s authenticity is the gap between the brand’s message and the reality of its operations. For many years, Google famously touted its slogan of “Don’t be evil,” a phrase taken from its code of conduct for employees. However, in its zeal to operate in China, it agreed to accept state government-sanctioned censorship that blacklisted any websites or search terms linked to religion, democracy, political opposition, and human rights in the country. So how did Google square its actions with “Don’t be evil?” Instead of standing up for free speech and fighting these onerous policies or refusing to do business in China, Google simply dropped “Don’t be evil” from its code of conduct and let the Chinese government use a censored version of its search engine as a tool to continue oppression of its citizens.
Another common problem for brands who want to draw attention to their stance on an issue is reconciling that messaging with the optics of their corporate leadership. In the wake of recent widely publicized instances of racial injustice, Nike, Adidas, L’Oreal, and other global brands put forth statements positioning themselves as allies to movements advancing racial justice and equality. Yet a quick look at their board of directors and senior leadership revealed rosters that were not mostly white but completely white, with not a single person of color present. So were these brands just now becoming enlightened? Or were their messages of support for change nothing more than lip service? Either way, these brands have some explaining to do.
Of course, it’s always better for brands to position themselves as being on the side of public sentiment, whether or not they’ve been as “woke” as they say they’ve been. The tricky part, though, comes in actually following through in the months after the issue fades from the headlines. Brand strategist Vikki Ross revealed her response to a client who recently asked her if it should change its logo to show support for Black Lives Matter. She presented a series of blunt but fair questions to consider if it decided to do so. Here’s a sample:
- Do you support the cause? Or do you want to look like you do?
- Do you always support the cause? Or do you support the cause when it is trending?
- If you change your logo to support the cause, when do you change it back?
- What happens if another cause is trending? Do you change your logo again?
- How do you keep up with showing support for every cause? What if you miss one?
- If you keep changing your logo, what is your logo?
The takeaway here is that a brand isn’t simply graphics and a tagline. It’s the trust that you’ve built with your customers, communities, and members. We all want to make our world a more just and equitable place. But we need to remember that actions—which are always an integral part of any brand—will speak louder and be remembered longer than marketing speak.