Who Likes Lukewarm Tea?

My gut reaction was yes. An overwhelming yes. It seemed to me like a no-brainer — of course brands should have a point of view on social, economic and political issues. The idea of passive neutrality and playing it safe on the fence struck me as a very unattractive alternative. All that came to mind was all those half-finished cups of tea I’ve poured down the sink because they’d become lukewarm. They weren’t hot, they weren’t cold — they were somewhere awkwardly in the middle, and because of that, they’d lost their appeal.

When confronted with this question: “should brands have a point of view on social, economic or political issues?”, the quote “if you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything” floated into my mind. And my imagination was quick to accompany these provocative words with galvanising music whilst I envisaged a new breed of brands that doubled up as freedom fighters. But in this hypothetical world where brands are my fellow social justice warriors, who exactly would be standing next to me with their picket sign? How do I personify a brand that in my head is a logo, or something I eat or drink, something I put on my face, or somewhere I go? Who is Samsung? Who is Coca-Cola? Who is McDonalds?

Unless it’s a brand with a strong founder mentality culture [1] ,( i.e. say ‘Apple’ and I think Steve Jobs, say ‘Facebook’ and I think Mark Zuckerberg, say ‘KFC’ and I think Colonel Sanders) it’s quite tricky to humanise a brand. And if a brand does choose to present a united, homogeneous viewpoint on a particular social, political or economic matter, will it ever be a true reflection of the inevitable heterogeneous opinions of the brand’s founders, staff, manufacturers, consumers and anything else that makes up a brand’s story and identity. In other words, are we demanding from brands what we would usually ask from individuals? I am one person, yet even within my singular psyche, I often have conflicting thoughts and feelings if I’m trying to weigh the pros and cons of a decision, or if I’m attempting to understand an issue or solve a problem by considering various perspectives. How can we then expect singularity and uniformity from a brand — which represents a host of different individuals — by looking for their viewpoint on social, political or economic issues?

Power is in the hands of the consumers. A fifth of UK consumers boycott brands following a scandal or negative press [2] and two thirds of US adults support boycotting brands over politics [3]. An incredible manifestation of this reality was the #DeleteUber campaign earlier on in the year which saw over 200,000 users delete the app when it appeared the company was seeking to profit from Anti-Trump protests as well as the former CEO’s Travis Kalanick’s involvement in Trump’s business advisory board. The best thing brands can do is to remind consumers of their power — to point to the consumers, rather than themselves, as the change agents.

If we liken driving social change to an actual, physical drive, the consumers are the ones behind the wheel. The brands can be the doors or seats of the car, the music playing on the radio, the handbag perched on the passenger seat — they are involved in the journey (some more obviously than others) but it is ultimately the consumers, the people that the products serve, that are doing the driving: brands as facilitators rather than dictators. For example, in the run up to the 2015 UK general election, Sky News created an online platform called ‘Stand Up Be Counted’ [4] which encouraged young people to upload short clips of themselves discussing subjects that they’re passionate about. Another example is Heineken's #OpenYourWorld advert where they bring together two strangers with opposing world views. Heineken places itself not as the orator but as the enabler of discussion.

In a society with rising political, economic and social unrest, and with a plethora of voices fighting to be heard, people are constantly being talked at rather than talked to. Brands need to show consumers that they are there, first and foremost, to listen rather than speak. The question can be completely reversed: people don’t necessarily want to hear the viewpoint of the brand but they want to know that the brand wants to hear their viewpoint.

[1] ] https://hbr.org/2016/03/founder-led-companies-outperform-the-rest-heres-why

[2] http://www.thedrum.com/opinion/2017/05/02/should-brands-take-stand-political-and-social-issues)

[3] (https://today.yougov.com/news/2017/03/08/two-thirds-US-adults-support-boycotting-brands/)

[4] http://news.sky.com/story/sky-news-stand-up-be-counted-how-it-works-10391350