Should brands take a stand?

Published Categorised as Marketing Strategy

Is it performative virtue signalling or change making? 

It was with some anxiety I watched February’s LGTB+ History Month go by without a brand post from Difference Engine. 

March saw International Women’s Day (IWD) and Neurodiversity Celebration Week. Still we were too tied up with client work to get a relevant post out.

We’re a couple of weeks away from International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia & Biphobia (May 17th) and then we’re into June: Pride month and International Women In Engineering Day. And many more besides.

Every marketer will know that pull. The urge to celebrate awareness days and mark high days and holidays. It’s a great way to fill those social media schedule quiet spots and create more “opportunities to see”. 

But it doesn’t sit easy with me. I’m uncomfortably ambivalent. 

Is it just pointless content calendar fodder or does it do some good? If we have a platform, is using it to raise issues, others’ voices (and our profile) enough? 

I think the arguments against coalesce around relevance and integrity.

Is it just empty or even cynical “positioning”?

Barring food brands sharing pancake recipes, surely nobody cares about a banal Happy Pancake day post? 

In any case, you’ll never beat the best of that particular celebration – it was won in 1985: Don’t Forget the Pancakes on Jif Lemon Day. Incidentally it’s a beautiful vintage ad artefact too, complete with RP voiceover and fabulous 80s hair. 

If there’s no genuine connection to your brand, and you’re not sharing anything useful, all you’re doing is contributing more noise to an awful lot of pointless brand noise.

And what if the message is at odds to the real values and culture of the brand? 

There’s a good and increasing chance your brand will get called out. 

This year the very clever Gender Pay Gap Bot automatically tweeted actual pay gap data for brands who posted IWD content. The Twitter account uses the suffragettes’ slogan “Deeds Not Words” seeking to expose those brands who don’t live up to their own marketing messages

And I am down with that. I am down with integrity. These companies need to be DOING THE RIGHT THING not just spouting messages for cynical brand awareness reasons. 

But this post made me think last Pride… Dale’s point is that even if it does help a supermarket sell more milk, it means more than that. It’s also promoting equality and in his words: “better things will come from this”. 

And the optimist in me thinks this is right. 

Communicating solidarity contributes to a positive environment of inclusion. 

We need the big actions too, don’t get me wrong. But just as microaggressions build and seemingly legitimise negative and hostile cultures, so these actions of “microsupport” accumulate, snowballing positivity and creating the conditions for progress.

So, I guess I’m finding in favour of brands coming out in support and raising awareness of issues. At least as long as they fulfil certain of my criteria:

  • the brand has integrity – the campaign positioning does not run counter to everyday values and culture
  • there’s a logical, credible connection between the issue and the brand
  • the content or campaign is useful, entertaining or informative. In other words it has some intrinsic merit
  • the activity aligns with the brand’s business objectives – we can be ethical and commercial
  • the brand also puts its money where its mouth is – deeds not *just* words

What do you think? Are you cynical? Optimistic? In support or opposed?

This post touches on a couple of related themes that we’ll explore in other posts. One is microaggressions and the power of language. And the other is business purpose and (social) leadership. 

We’re keen to hear your thoughts on all of this!

By Jane Franklin

…is co-founder of Difference Engine. Jane has deep experience in communications, inbound and outbound marketing for a range of organisations from Microsoft and OS to the Greater London Authority and NFU Mutual and many others in between. Should anyone ever want to bribe Jane, focusing on a mixture of rock, comedy, cheese and cider will probably do the trick.

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