ThinkOTB Agency

The balancing act: how to be a socially responsible brand without alienating your customer base

July 27, 2018

It’s been a couple of weeks since President Trump visited the UK on official state business. He was met by widespread protests across the country, ranging from a giant baby blimp flying over the Houses of Parliament to marches on the streets of the capital. As the most divisive political figure ever to hold office from across the pond landed on our shores, we seek to explore how brands can take a stand without alienating their existing consumer base. Customers are increasingly wishing to align their buying power with brands that mirror their own values. Neglecting such social responsibility in today’s climate can prove to be fatal.

Here is a list of tips to ensure your company doesn’t shirk responsibility and starts to become a socially responsible brand.

Be Proactive

The world we live in today is highly-politicised. Whether it is the food we eat or the clothes we choose to wear, today’s consumer is met with many a moral quandary on their journey to the checkout. Brands will inevitably be drawn into political debates, so it is best to approach these issues head on and control the narrative. A socially responsible brand identity is actually selling point for modern customers if done right.

As Business Insider notes, even luxury brands such as Burberry are not exempt from social responsibility. It has been reported that more than £28 million of unsold products have been burned by Burberry within the last 12 months. Burberry say this move was to protect their image of exclusivity. They want to stop their products from falling into the wrong hands where it may be exploited by counterfeiters. 

However, this decision in an age of intense levels of scrutiny appears to be ill advised and unashamedly wasteful. Burning such a stockpile of unbought clothes disregards the human labour sacrificed to make the clothes and the natural materials sourced. And that’s not to mention the environmental impact of a fashion-fuelled bonfire…

Tone is Key

The tone you employ will ultimately be the difference in being applauded for your efforts or sparking public outcry. You must take a political stance without your efforts being perceived as disingenuous. Without care, it can appear that you are simply riding the back of a ‘trend’ to boost sales.  Before undertaking any action, you must be very aware of your customer base. Not chiming with their beliefs risks alienating them entirely. You should be seen to be engaging with a subject matter without belittling or trivialising those you oppose.

Smirnoff Vodka chose to employ a comical tone in their ad campaign shortly after Trump’s inauguration. Their ad reads ‘Made in America but we’d be happy to talk about our ties to Russia under oath’. They are careful not to antagonise their American base where their product is now manufactured while also poking fun at the President and his alleged ties to Russian hacking.

Principle Over Popularity

Some brands opt to make a stand knowing it may well result in a backlash. Although this may seem counterintuitive, such a bold stance can in fact result in positive public perception. An individual consumer may not resonate directly with the message of the campaign, but they may hold the company in higher regard for remaining true to their own brand values. A company that stands for something is better than a company that stands for nothing.

The Guardian reported earlier this year that the cosmetics retailer Lush received quite the backlash from the Police Federation and the Home Secretary for an advertising campaign. The ad addressed the scandal of undercover police officers forming relationships with female activists they were employed to spy on. Lush would have been aware of the divisive nature of this campaign. Their decision to press on and shine the light on police misconduct is admirable.

Don’t Follow in Their Footsteps

Here are a couple examples of campaigns to avoid:

  • H&M were recently vilified for their decision to show a black child modelling a jumper that read ‘coolest monkey in the jungle’. This is a good example of how brands can be thrust into political debate without initiating one themselves. This campaign resulted in well-known black celebrities such as The Weekend cutting all ties with the retail brand.
  • Pepsi were forced to bow to public pressure and remove a controversial advert. It featured Kendall Jenner and appeared to trivialise social justice causes. The ad appeared to suggest that police and protesters could reconcile differences by simply being nicer and sharing a can of Pepsi. This was clearly wide of the mark and did little to acknowledge the legitimate reasons behind social protest.

What causes are close to your heart? How have you chosen to champion them? Tweet us with what has and hasn’t worked so well in relation to your socially responsible brand. Shirking social responsibility is no longer a viable option!


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