Why brands need a social conscience

Positive Super Bowl storytelling is a start, but brands need to do more as the private, public, and social sectors merge in messy ways.

In so-called “normal” years, many companies use the Super Bowl to create a halo effect around their brands, taking advantage of the massive audience to talk about our common values. (See: Proctor & Gamble’s #LikeAGirl, among other recent examples.)

These commercials — though many are painfully generic in their message — are typically praised by all sides. Whenever a company spends millions of dollars in advertising with the goal of inspiring millions of us with a positive message, we generally see that as a good thing.

This year, Anheuser-Busch and its Budweiser brand experienced the opposite before the game even kicked off. After taking what it presumably felt was a pretty mild stand — debuting the story of one of its founders, an immigrant — it immediately faced a backlash. The ad was seen as an implicit critique of the policies of the president, and rallied Trump supporters to call for a boycott.

Budweiser wasn’t the only brand to be somewhat political: Audi’s commercial called for equal pay for women. Melissa McCarthy was a warrior for the environment for Kia. And 84 Lumber made an ad with a border wall — but one that Fox felt was too controversial to air.

These ads were tame in their appeal. But in this environment, where the president sees fit to critique publicly any company whose decisions he disagrees with, anything that vaguely acknowledges American values seems audacious.

Many will see this as a product of our current political situation, but the desire to see higher value elements in the products and services we buy runs deeper than a response to Trump alone. The president is unwittingly accelerating a trend that was already underway: as digital breaks down traditional silos, the public, private, and social sectors are merging.

Our societal norms have held that the these sectors have played their separate parts in upholding our democratic society — supporting each other, but also holding the others accountable when necessary.

What happens when the walls between the three start coming down completely?

Beyond advertising messages, consider:

  • Digital tools enable social activists to directly affect the decisions of for-profit companies, forcing them to reconsider the societal impact of their business practices. In his recent book, Connect, John Browne, the former CEO of BP, acknowledges this reality and even asserts, “Connection with society is the new frontier of competitive advantage.”
  • The existence of the L3C, B Corporations, and other legal entities are already acknowledging there is a middle ground between mission-driven work and profit-driven work, or at least that both can co-exist.
  • Ambitious investment firms are popping up with specifically stated social goals, like BRAVA Investments, which aims to make smart investment decisions that disproportionately benefit women.
  • Grab Your Wallet, an activism campaign specifically designed to boycott retailers that carry Trump family products, has already seen success pressuring retailers to drop Ivanka Trump-branded products.

(Not to mention that America just elected a rich businessman to the highest public office.)

We’re just scratching the surface of this trend. As information about businesses becomes more democratized, as technology increases our connection, access, and accountability for public leaders like CEOs, and especially as our president continues to be incredibly polarizing, we as consumers will demand that companies be better — better stewards of the environment, more intentional about diversity, inclusion, and opportunity, and willing to stand up when those values are challenged in the public arena.

And we’ll notice when their words are only words. Audi saw immediate pushback over the fact that it has no women on its board, and the political views of the 84 Lumber leadership confused many about the message its commercial was meant to send. Taking a stand won’t mean anything if words aren’t followed in practice.

With the institutional trust increasingly lagging, we demand more than values-neutral brands only interested in advancing their own bottom lines.

This is about more than relevance; it’s about responsibility.

We want to know a business we’re supporting is having a positive impact on society. We want to know what a brand stands for before we open our wallets.