How Brands Can Stay in Step with Shifting Standards and Sensitivities

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Moving at the Speed of Culture

By Monica Chun, Acceleration Community of Companies’ Chief Client Officer and President of Brand Advisory

The ongoing turmoil engulfing Twitter has thrown into stark relief that there is no more pressing issue right now for consumer-facing companies than brand safety.

Never before have brands had to live in such a fast-moving  landscape, full of unexpected land mines, where perceptions and cultural sensitivities can shift by the hour .

Gone are the days when major corporations could exist in silos separated from politics and culture. Consumers demand that brands articulate values and involve themselves in conversations that often have nothing to do with the products they’re selling. What’s more, even choosing where to show up as a brand can carry baggage, as the debate over whether advertisers should abandon sites like Twitter altogether has intensified.

In a swirling and ever-changing environment that can be very tricky to navigate, it is important to establish a thoughtful and attuned process to determine how to engage with cultural sensitivities around hot-button issues. Even icons like Beyoncee and Lizzo recently had to edit song lyrics because of criticism for using a term that is offensive to many listeners today, even though it barely registered a few short years ago.

The stars of “Queer Eye” faced fierce backlash and accusations of “queer baiting” for what was intended as a playful promo for a new pet food company, catching them off guard and forcing an apology.

Whether it’s an error related to the cultural lexicon, sociopolitical sensitivity or flat-out bad optics, here are five steps to consider when reacting to cultural controversies.

To respond or not to respond

The first and often most thorny decision brands need to make is whether to say anything at all. Often, silence communicates a stance as loudly as any statement. Before deciding to respond, ask key questions, such as: Is this issue meaningful to our customers? Do we have standing to discuss it? How does it align with the values we have already articulated?

The CEO of Allstate, Tom Wilson, spoke recently about the detailed process they go through before deciding whether to weigh in on issues like climate change and abortion. By having a framework for making these decisions, it will produce consistency that rings true with consumers.

Understand the difference between intent and perception

Avoid the mistake of judging yourself by your intentions. Look at how actions and words are perceived. If you want to weigh in on a culturally sensitive issue, seek out many points of view and test it with your intended audience. The message may not land the way you want it to.

Since Juneteenth became a federal holiday, brands have rushed in, throwing their products into the holiday in a way that may be intended to express solidarity, but often comes across as tone-deaf or – even worse – crass commercialism.

Walmart had to pull its Juneteenth-themed ice cream when many people perceived it as shallow and lacking in understanding of what the holiday is meant to honor. Other brands ran into similar trouble, including a museum in Indianapolis that inadvertently surfaced racist stereotypes with its Juneteenth watermelon salad.

Be decisive and don’t muddle your messaging

Adidas received criticism for waiting weeks to sever its relationship with Kanye West, now known as Ye, over anti-Semitic remarks he made. The company faced further backlash when it was revealed it is still selling his shoe designs, albeit with his name removed.

If a brand is going to take a stand on an issue, do it early and do it clearly. Disney faced similar problems when it got caught flat-footed following its home state of Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law, which curbs discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity in schools.

LGBTQ+ supporters were angry over the company’s  seemingly lukewarm initial reaction, and then Disney got slammed from the right when it finally made a statement in opposition. This pleased no one, and created a perception that the company was out of touch with people on both sides of the political spectrum.

You can’t please everyone

Michael Jordan’s famous declaration that “Republicans buy sneakers too” to explain his decision to stay out of politics simply doesn’t work anymore.

In fact, it often pays to strategically court certain demographics by expressing strong opinions. One survey found that 70% of consumers believe it is important for a brand to take a stand on social and political issues. When Georgia passed a new voting law criticized as intended to suppress minority turnout, many brands took a strong stand in opposition, wading into political waters they may have once considered too hot.

If you’re going to talk the talk, walk the walk

Consumers today are laser-focused on authenticity. Young people in particular are experts at sniffing out hypocrisy. If you say you are going to support a cause or movement, there needs to be depth behind it.

Don’t just put rainbow colors in your Twitter avatar during Pride Month. Support an organization that helps fight discrimination or provides resources for the group your’re trying to reach. Look at Patagonia – the billionaire owner is literally giving away the company to fight climate change. If you’re not willing to back up your words with strong and visible action, it will backfire and consumers will hold you to account.

Bottom Line

Cultural sensitivities are changing fast and brands need to keep up. That doesn’t mean you will always get it right, but you have to try. And that means listening to your audience, understanding the values of your brand, and knowing what – and whether and where – to speak about the controversies in the world around you.

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