News & Views

Opinion / Getting into the Issues

by Contagious Contributor
Michael Aneto, head of strategic planning and managing partner at Perfect Fools argues that brands must take a firmer stance on issues before it’s too late

Great brands are usually led by positive-minded people who generally believe in equality, diversity, fairness, opportunity and a sustainable, balanced existence on this planet.

Great brands have the power to affect positive change, but despite their resources, most shy from affecting positive change. Some flirt, but most are commitment phobic.

In today’s climate I believe all great brands, or brands who aspire to greatness, must work out the issues that mean most to them and their customers, and do something about it.

The world clearly has a multitude of issues that need injections of positivity to counteract the negativity that pervades.

I’d go as far to say any leader at a business who does not leverage his or her influence to its limits, or take a stance on some of these issues, is complicit in making things worse.

This is not to belittle the contributions, scholarships, and sponsorships that many companies devote significant resources towards in the background. Or the positive messages of support often sparked by events that touch people worldwide.

That is no longer enough because the world is different and how brands spread positivity has to evolve – they have to take a stance.

There is an argument that it’s not appropriate for brands to make statements on important issues. In my opinion this is an obsolete argument that perpetuates the status quo.

In 1994 IKEA’s decision to run a campaign in the USA that featured same sex and interracial couples was brave and appropriate. It was actually also on-brand and made good business sense to appeal to a wider customer base.

It was equally appropriate to pull the TV ad featuring a gay male couple after the store received bomb threats.

Twenty-two years (and a lot of campaigning and law-making) later, any brand can openly support and profit from the LGBT community without shareholders asking too many questions. In fact, they’re now falling over themselves to do so.

Misrepresentation is another powerful argument for the risk averse. Can a brand speak for 100% of its employees, suppliers and customers if it chooses to take a stance on a particular issue? Should it outwardly represent everyone’s point of view? The answer to both is “no”.

But there’s nothing wrong with a brand extolling a clear point of view on an issue when it’s broadly in-line with its ethos and there is a business case.

When Michael Jordan, namesake of Nike’s billion dollar sub-brand, spoke out on BlackLivesMatter, he spoke for most, but not every customer or employee. He diplomatically, succinctly and powerfully showed where the Jordan brand and Nike’s heart is on this issue.

It’s extremely hard to argue with the words, sentiment and $2 million donation unless one simply disagrees. In which case fair enough, it’s okay to have alternate points of view. Regardless, it’s clearly a smart business decision.

Jordan’s statement and donation smoothly embody the first two steps for great brands to navigate the muddy waters that surround these areas:

1) make a point of view clear
2) do what comes naturally to the business
3) use it as an opportunity to innovate
4) learn quickly from any mistakes

Facebook followed this path when it launched its Safety Check feature:

1) the safety of our users near danger zones matters to us
2) our platform uses notifications and geo-location
3) let’s start a feature called Safety Check where users can easily broadcast their/view others’ safety in times of danger
4) we were being selective about when and where we deployed it; let’s admit our mistake and deploy it more often, in more locations.

It’s a guide that most great brands can apply to big issues. For example, what if Uber added the US election to its special event services, tailored for areas where people find it difficult to vote?

No need to talk about political parties, just help people vote. Imagine the positive global PR, uptake in app downloads, new drivers and even new service areas they could get.
Airbnb and affordable housing? What would that look like? I don’t know, but it feels like it could be a good moral and business position. A step into the unknown, sure. But the way forward isn’t to try and replicate the dynamics of yesterday, it’s to make positive new ones.

How about Tinder tackling sex attacks? A little out there, but it makes sense. If the tone was right, their community would embrace and advocate the app over rivals.

Whichever prominent brand it is, they should act with positivity first and find the business benefit second. At the very least, they’ll be a role model to everyone by speaking with a human voice and empathy.

So to positive-minded leaders at great brands everywhere: find out which issues mean most to you and your customers, and do something about it – before it’s too late. As strange as it sounds, the world needs you.