DUBAI: The last two years have seen consumers go from #BrandLove to #Boycott in a matter of seconds. People have always cared about what brands stand for, but the pandemic has made a brand’s social values even more important to consumers.
Last year, ice cream maker Ben and Jerry’s announced it would stop selling its products in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. The decision prompted both praise and hate online, with some consumers accusing the business of antisemitism. Either way, Ben and Jerry’s was very much in the public eye.
“Ben and Jerry’s has a very long history of political positioning and commitment to a variety of progressive causes,” Robert Haigh, strategy and insights director at Brand Finance, told Arab News, in a separate interview.
Some 48 percent globally said that brands’ response to the COVID-19 pandemic affected their brand choices, and 41 percent in 14 countries, including the UAE and Saudi Arabia, said they are boycotting brands still doing business in or with Russia, according to the 2022 Edelman Trust Barometer.
Moreover, the report also found that more than 80 percent of Gen Zs buy based on beliefs.
In March, users took to social media to call out big brands that continued to operate in Russia after its invasion of Ukraine, resulting in hashtags such as #BoycottCocaCola and #BoycottPepsi, among others, trending on Twitter.
Most recently, advertisers have paused, or at least dramatically reduced, their advertising spend on Twitter following Elon Musk’s takeover of the company.
Audi, Pfizer, General Mills, and Volkswagen are among some of the biggest brands to pause ads over concerns about brand safety and content moderation.
Nonprofits organizations such as the US-based National Association for the Advancement of Colored People have issued statements calling on advertisers to take action.
Following Musk’s possible reinstatement of former US President Donald Trump, President and CEO of the NAACP Derrick Johnson said: “Any advertiser still funding Twitter should immediately pause all advertising now.”
Earlier this month, too, the NAACP issued a statement asking advertisers to pause all advertising on Twitter.
“It is immoral, dangerous, and highly destructive to our democracy for any advertiser to fund a platform that fuels hate speech, election denialism, and conspiracy theories,” the statement said.
It added: “Unlike Elon Musk’s past ventures, this one should not be rocket science.”
“Consumers want to build a relationship with purposeful and belief-driven brands, meaning that they want to buy from a brand that shares their values and beliefs,” Ahmad Abu Zannad, author of books like “Adman vs. Chomsky” and “De-Commoditizing the Ad Industry,” and founder of Native Communications, an advisory firm dedicated to helping brands find a “native” role in people’s lives, told Arab News.
Enter brand activism, the new frontier of corporate social responsibility.
“Brand activism is a relatively new practice, and often we are seeing brands misunderstanding its purpose and misusing it by taking a divisive sociopolitical stand,” said Abu Zannad.
As beneficial as brand activism can be, it can also backfire if brands aren’t careful. A 2021 GfK report found that while 75 percent noticed examples of companies being a force for good during the coronavirus crisis, an overwhelming 78 percent noticed examples of companies trying to take advantage.
Consumers feel like brands are pandering, virtue signaling or worse, taking advantage of the crisis to sell.
Abu Zannad, too, warned: “There are traps that brands need to be wary of, specifically in a region like the Arab world.”
Arab News spoke to Abu Zannad to learn more about what brands should be wary of when practicing brand activism.
There are three traps to watch out for, he said: brands do not go to heaven; cultures differ vastly; and some relationships are better kept light.
He added: “There’s no such thing as a purely selfless brand that is taking an action or a stand for a greater good beyond the business.”
Research by Razorfish and Vice Media showed that 2 out of 3 consumers have become cynical toward such initiatives, and less than half of consumers believe that brands are living their stated purpose.
“Brands need to stand for something before taking a stand,” Abu Zannad said.
For example, Dove often tackles conventional ideas of beauty through its campaigns. As a personal care brand, the topic is relevant to both the business and the consumer.
On the other hand, a beverage brand decided to tackle the issue of the gender pay gap in the UK by offering their drink at a 20 percent discount to women — reflecting the approximate pay gap between salaries for men and women.
The brand also repackaged the drinks in pink.
The stunt drew a massive backlash with many calling it a gimmick and accusing the brand of patronizing women and trying to capture the female consumer segment.
Similarly, Nike’s brand purpose is centered around encouraging people to push their limits and “just do it.”
In 2016, athlete Colin Kaepernick took the knee during the national anthem as a stand against racial police brutality. Nike supported him by releasing an advert with the message: “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.”
Although the campaign generated a lot of controversy, Nike’s stocks rose by 5 percent in the weeks after the ad was released.
“There is a very large constituency of people for whom the Nike brand was re-energized” as it aligned itself with a younger, more progressive audience, Haigh previously said.
“The brand did not discuss its own personal take on the controversy; it showcased how Nike’s general beliefs and purpose are aligned with those of Kaepernick,” Abu Zannad said.
The second factor for brands to keep in mind is cultural differences across the world.
For example, Disney and Pixar’s movie “Lightyear,” which was slated for a June 16 release, was banned in the UAE — one of the most liberal countries in the Arab world — over content, including a same-sex intimate scene.
Around 14 other countries across the Middle East and Asia, including Lebanon, Egypt, Kuwait and Malaysia, have also banned the film.
On the other hand, Dove often localizes its campaigns based on cultural insight. In India, for example, the brand found that 3 out of 4 women are rejected for their looks during the arranged marriage process. So, it launched the “StopTheBeautyTest” campaign, encouraging women who have faced rejection to share their stories.
Lastly, Abu Zannad said, some relationships are better kept light.
In his book “How Brands Grow: What Marketers Don’t Know,” Prof. Byron Sharp applied years of statistical analysis of sales data to demonstrate that the majority of a brand’s business comes from what he refers to as “light buyers” — those who do not buy the brand very often and are enjoying a light and casual relationship with it.
“Such light buyers would still like to admire that brand for its beliefs,” Abu Zannad said.
He pointed out brands like Adidas and Nike, which encourage Arab women to exercise more often through empowering initiatives and messaging that challenges cultural notions that may be keeping them away from participating in activities.
However, they keep the messaging within the parameters of sport and do not engage in intense, political, or divisive stands.
Nike’s “What Will They Say About You?” film urges women to think about what people will say about them when they are playing sport.
Similarly, Adidas’ “Beyond the Surface” and “Liquid Billboard” campaigns encourage women to feel comfortable in their skin. The latter, which marked the launch of Adidas’ inclusive swimwear collection, was based on the insight that globally 32 percent of women are uncomfortable swimming in public, and in the Middle East the proportion rises to 88 percent.
Adidas, therefore, created the world’s first “swimmable billboard” in Dubai, which encouraged women to dive in, regardless of body shape, ethnicity or ability.
Whether it is being inclusive or challenging conventional ideas of beauty, a brand’s purpose must be aligned with its business and consumers.
Abu Zannad said: “A brand purpose is not a tool for a brand to be selfless; it is there for the brand to serve its audiences, its community, and consequently, its business.”