From causes-du-jour to cultural movements, should your brand jump into the fray — or should you just let it pass you by?
By Leigh Flayton
We’ve all seen it and, let’s face it, it can make us cringe.
Global corporations “rainbow washing” their branding during Pride Month. Giant retailers changing their social media avatars to show solidarity with this incident or that movement. Energy behemoths advertising in support of the environment, but only on Earth Day. Lately, it’s everywhere: businesses and organizations seizing any opportunity for what they hope will lead to pertinence or profit.
If you are a brand like Patagonia, with a time-honored mission statement — We’re in business to save our home planet — and have a “director of philosophy” on staff who ensures the company walks its walk, then by all means have at it, on Earth Day and every day. But most of us are not Patagonia and, if you aren’t, then what does (toothless) advocacy, bandwagon-jumping and sloganeering actually do for your organization? What effect does it have on your reputation, and is it worth it for your bottom line or brand awareness?
These are questions that every organization should ask itself, so, before you plan your marketing strategy around the next cultural event or cause-du-jour, consider the following guidelines.
Unless you have a smart, truly unique or compelling take on a social media trend like Barbenheimer… following the crowd likely will not yield the results you desire.
Play the Long Game
There’s a line in the novel The World According to Garp where Jenny Fields, a nurse, responds to her fatherless son, Garp, when he says he wants to be like his friends who have a dad: “If all the other kids had trench mouth would you want that, too?” she asks.
This time-honored response from parent to child would serve marketers well as a question to ask themselves before plowing ahead with whatever everyone else seems to be doing at any given moment. Unless you have a smart, truly unique or compelling take on a social media trend like Barbenheimer, or “International Week of This” or “World Day of That,” following the crowd likely will not yield the results you desire. Yes, you might stand out among a competitive and noisy marketplace — but in the worst way, as a poorly executed attempt can be more harmful than ignoring the trend altogether. So, get comfortable with the idea that you don’t have to opine about everything that comes down the cultural pike.
Instead, determine if what you wish to do is relevant to — and consistent with — your brand, and whether there’s longevity involved in the position you want to take. Because the thing about trends? They’re fleeting.
Have a Clear Vision
In digital marketing strategies, less is often more, so choose carefully where you wish to compete.
Taking a political or cultural stance is a relatively recent phenomenon, as U.S. companies traditionally have been for business purposes only. But, in the last few decades, they have been compelled to share their solidarity with this cause or that movement, which may inflict cognitive dissonance on their audience — see “rainbow washing” above — and often doesn’t help their brand. Also, it’s possible that their “help” may not wind up helping anyone, at all.
Case in point: Last April, Bud Light featured a transgender influencer, Dylan Mulvaney, in a social media promotion. It was no surprise that this prompted backlash — and even boycotts — from certain quarters, which Bud Light must have expected. But what it didn’t count on was criticism from the LGBTQ+ community, as well, after the beer giant offered only a tepid response to the backlash with a statement that claimed, “We never intended to be part of a discussion that divides people,” but expressed no explicit support for Mulvaney.
Conversely, Ben & Jerry’s ice cream often takes sides on sociopolitical issues and, whether you agree with them or not, they are consistent in their actions, going so far as to feature an “Activism” section on their website and sponsor an eponymous foundation that openly and actively supports grassroots groups throughout the U.S.
As you answer these questions, take note of one more trend: the public perception of businesses stepping into the fray. In October, Gallup released a survey that reported that consumers are less interested in brands taking stances on sociopolitical issues but expect them to take action on issues such as pay equity, healthcare and climate change. In fact, less than half of U.S. adults (41%) believe businesses should take a public stance on current events, down from 48% in 2022. Perhaps this latest trend should serve as your North star?
Don’t Take Shortcuts
Authenticity. It’s an overused word, but it keeps showing up for a reason. Consumers cite the attribute of authenticity for what really grabs their attention — and their dollars. If you are true to the values that you espouse — both when you’re in and out of the spotlight — you’ll garner trust. But if you are trying to be something you’re not, or attempting to be everything to everyone, then your marketing will get you nowhere.
You can avoid this, however, by heeding the adult Garp, the writer, and his advice that it isn’t really all that difficult to serve up quality work — with your integrity and dignity intact.
“If you are careful,” Garp wrote in one of his stories, “if you use good ingredients, and you don’t take any shortcuts, then you can usually cook something very good.”