Activist brands: The Superbowl and the necessity of political engagement

Traditionally, one would assume that the job of government is to protect society (all of the people) from big business and corporate greed. But fast forward to today and the systems are being broken. Increasingly it’s now those same corporations that are actually stepping it to help people (all of the people), to stand up for their rights, to fight for equality – for gender neutral toilets, extra jobs for refugees and donations to civil rights organisations.

You only have to look at the spate of ads aired through this year’s Superbowl to note that shift.

Brands are increasingly shifting way from being entities that offer products, to companies that take a political stance, largely (and thankfully) to champion acceptance, diversity, equality and even immigration.

The Guardian described the Superbowl ads as “trolling Trump”, but the drivers behind this shift go far deeper than trying to wind up the US president, and I think are far more interesting.

The businesses that are taking a political position can’t afford to simply post a sepia-toned ad with an inspiring voice over it showing people overcoming adversity. They need to back their words with actions, and many of these brands, and others, are.

Audi unveiled its ad, promoting gender quality in the workplace. The spot, aired during the third quarter featured a father watching his daughter race in a soapbox-derby down a big hill.

“What do I tell my daughter?” says the dad in the voiceover. “Do I tell her that her grandpa is worth more than her grandma? That her dad is worth more than her mom? That despite her education, her drive, her skills, her intelligence, she will automatically be valued as less than every man she ever meets? “Or maybe I’ll be able to tell her something different,” he concludes as they wander over to his new, 2018 Audi A5 Sportback.

The ad concludes with a silent message saying that “Audi of America is committed to equal pay for equal work. Progress is for everyone.”

In the press release announcing the ad, the company touted some of its own relevant initiatives, including a graduate internship program in which 50% of entrants must be female, and its partnership with the American Film Institute’s annual “AFI Fest” event to create an Audi fellowship scholarship program that grants one promising female director enrollment in the AFI Conservatory.

Truth be told, this ad did make me feel misty eyed (read ‘ugly cry’ at my desk), as do many of the other initiatives. For many brands wanting to reach the Millennial consumer, standing for something bigger than profit will be key to their future success.

Brands and business leaders have to do more than just sell a product. JWT research has found that 88% of younger consumers believe brands should not simply “do less bad” but actively “do more good“. And as we shift increasingly to the experience economy, what brands do is as important (if not more) than what they offer.

Starbucks has committed to hiring 10,000 refugees in its stores over the next five years, CEO Howard Schultz said: “We are living in an unprecedented time, one in which we are witness to the conscience of our country, and the promise of the American Dream, being called into question.” He has committed to the business building “bridges not walls” with Mexico, and has promised to continue investing in the country.

The coffee chain has since faced calls for a boycott from Trump supporters. But consumers on both sides of the political fence are using politics as a driving force behind where to spend their money. Grabyourwallet.org has been created to help those against Trump decide which businesses to boycott.

Outside of the current divisive political landscape, brands are still working hard to do the right thing for the communities they operate in, and that’s leading to business success. I remain inspired by Ashley Stewart CEO James Rhee’s comments at the recent NRF Big Show in New York, where he described how it had succeeded by telling staff that “kindness, as the bedrock of innovation and consumer engagement, is a go-forward core strategic pillar.”

Rhee described how in tightly knit communities, shopping routines are interwoven among generations of women, often around important moments for them like church, family reunions, or a job interview. Consumers were already loyal to store employees, many of whom were friends. He realised that the store culture was about respect and stores had deep ties to their local communities. He discovered that customers believed that “Ashley Stewart stood for kindness and embodied community.”

As he looked to turn around the business, he tapped into those things – putting kindness and community at the business’ heart.

These are not just fluffy unquantifiable things like brands wanting to be more human, authentic or even just doing “the right thing” – this shift has led to Ashley Stewart booking organic sales growth of more than 25%.

These moves aren’t entirely philanthropic – many of the business leaders that have spoken out against the new US travel restrictions are those that either have a personal or business stake in the issue. Google co-founder Sergey Brin has attacked the ban, saying that he came to the US as a refugee as a child, while the tech industry (and many other industries’) successes rely on the relatively free movement of talent between countries.

And for brands that are perceived as being quintessentially American, championing a political position of inclusion may become an essential ingredient to their global financial success.

For instance, in the third quarter of 2016, more than 60% of Coca-Cola’s revenue (excluding bottling investments) came from outside of the US. But as the US pursues isolationist policies that may alienate consumers abroad, brands face a risk – say nothing and appear internationally to be complicit in Trump’s politics, or say something and face a Tweet storm from Trump’s supporters?

Other brands will be forced into taking a political position. Uber faced a massive backlash after misreading consumer sentiment, saying it would cut surge pricing at JFK at the start of the executive order banning citizens from seven Muslim countries, angering users who thought the company wanted to undercut the protests of taxi drivers.

The backlash led to the hashtag #deleteuber surging in popularity as many customers cancelled their accounts in response.

The company has been in damage control mode since, with the ride company saying in an email to users that had cancelled their accounts: “We wanted to let you know that Uber shares your views on the immigration ban: it’s unjust, wrong and against everything we stand for as a company.”

It has also led to CEO Travis Kalanick stepping down from Trump’s economic advisory council, and for it to offer its drivers legal support, compensation and a $3m legal fund for any drivers affected by the order.

“Joining the group was not meant to be an endorsement of the President or his agenda but unfortunately it has been misinterpreted to be exactly that,” Kalanick wrote in an email to staff.

Consumers increasingly want to spend with brands that speak to their best hopes and characteristics, both in the US and abroad. Brands that fail to do so, risk becoming irrelevant, or potentially even reviled.

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