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ACNE’s Annie Gallimore: how brands can navigate an increasingly polarised world

You might have heard the phrase “if you try to please everyone, you will please no one.”

In a world fraught with political and social polarisation, internationally and domestically, it rings as true today as it ever did. The standard of morality and ethics varies from person to person – what matters to me may not matter to you.

I’m sure we all remember Bud Light’s handling of the Dylan Mulvaney saga in 2023. On the one hand, more conservative customers felt they could not relate to new transgender face of their choice of beverage, leading to boycotts and social media outrage. The ‘2023 Bud Light boycott’ even has its own Wikipedia page. On the other, members and allies of the LGBTQ+ community criticised the brand’s decision to part ways with Mulvaney, citing their pandering as appeasement of transphobic rhetoric.

What started out as a marketing strategy became an inquisition into the brand’s values and moral positioning – where Bud Light failed to take a stance and alienated both sides of the aisle.

The events that unfolded, which included considerable market value losses, are indicative of the broader challenge faced by brands in every sector.

How can brands avoid this happening to them, and what learnings can we take away from Bud Light’s misfortune? More to the point, what should brands speak about and how will they know if they’re making the right decision?

Know your values, build trust

Trust is essential for brands intent on encouraging rapport and loyalty with their consumers. Being consistent with messaging can help brands achieve this. And it isn’t for the ‘happy feels’ of finding like-minded individuals. In 2023, 52% of customers only bought from companies or brands that they completely trusted.

Building trust requires organisations to understand and reflect customer’s priorities. This means brands must identify which issues matter most to their core customer base to help inform what stance they should take.

Or not..

At times, it will be profitable for brands to not chime in on debates and issues. If a brand suddenly starts advertising a strong view on racial inequality, for example, it might seem disingenuous and inauthentic in light of your own values – however noble the initial intent.

Whatever views a company chooses to promote, it is important they retain the fundamental values that built their brand. Coupled with a strong and full understanding of their core customer base, brands will be empowered to navigate social issues with confidence and success., true to who they are.

It all comes back to purpose and product. Focus on what customers really care about from brands, not what marketing teams think matters to them.

Consider your use of data

When brands announce their stance on a particular issue, it must be carefully considered and based on cold, hard data – not a knee-jerk reaction to events unfolding around them.

Whether qualitative or quantitative, data can provide insights into which issues bring an audience together, while identifying divisive topics.

Social listening platforms, for example, can be used to hone in on contentious subjects and understand which way the crowd is leaning on any given issue. Brands can also actively monitor public opinion on themselves, as well as competitors – especially in response to corporate statements. Essentially, it collects data and produces useful information companies can use to inform decisions around future communication.

Leaning on data will allow businesses to consistently make the correct judgement call, expressing opinions that resonate with their audience without alienating another, and weighing in where their voice is needed.

Crucially, organisations can use data to learn which common views exist among different communities, creating opportunities to engage as yet untapped customer audiences.

Brands can master data by democratising it. Training everyone in an organisation to access and use data is essential. Done effectively, businesses can ensure big decisions are backed by data, but also allow data to drive small, iterative adjustments every day. Boosting accessibility makes data an agile, efficient tool and encourages brands to make better decisions for their customers.

Tying this back to purpose, proper use of data will enable brands to identify discourse opportunities that will positively impact their reputation and reinforce their values. It will also help enable alignment between product and marketing to ensure both resonate with their intended audience.

Watch, listen, and learn

As well as providing a value proposition to all of this, looking at the success of other brands in navigating cultural moments is a learning opportunity. It shows that organisations can communicate a strong stance on cultural, social, or political issues and reap the rewards.

Notable examples from the past few years include Patagonia, Lush, and Nike.

Patagonia made a commitment to the environment in everything it stood for, solving the issue of sustainability by producing quality garments you only need to buy once. Their outdoorsy audience connected with the cause of protecting the natural spaces they love to explore, while it simultaneously appealed to their desire for durable clothing.

Body care brand Lush took themselves off social media. While everyone else was rushing to gain followers online, Lush wanted to protect their customers against the harmful effects of social media – especially among young people – by not contributing to it. The decision signalled Lush’s priorities to customers, which aligned with their own values.

In response to social unrest in the wake of the George Floyd incident in the US, and subsequent global demonstrations, Nike stood firm. Leading with the slogan “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything”, their campaign – and continued endorsement of athlete activist Colin Kaepernick – in support of social justice resonated strongly with their core customer base.

These brands considered how their customers were feeling and took actions that reflected the values of their brand. Customers gain a deeper connection with brands who reflect their views, and identify more strongly with them – leading to greater trust and loyalty.

Understanding customers doesn’t always mean needing limitless access to their data. Behind every datapoint is a person, and understanding them can be as easy as facilitating customer feedback. Or marketers could be really old-school and call up some consumers – connecting with them personally, one-to-one, and asking them what they think.

It is true that brands must often react to events as they unfold. But they should use caution and apply data to help decide which arenas and conversations to enter, while taking a stalwart stance that is true to their values.

Annie Gallimore= is managing director ACNE, part of Deloitte Digital.

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