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Brand Backlash – the Flip Side of Brand Activism

Posted by Flux on 

14 February 2018

brand activism - brand backlash

What’s trending now?

Brands are learning just how hard it is to be politically correct enough to please and appease Generation Z through brand activism.

Why is it important?

Generation Z, the generation of young people born around the turn of the century and coming of age today are particularly “woke”. They are cosmopolitan, globally connected digital natives; as such they have developed an acute sense of social justice.

What is more, they expect brands and businesses to share these values and put their profits and reputations on the line to prove it.

According to Futurecast’s Getting to Know Gen Z: How The Pivotal Generation is Different from Millennials research report, a full 60% of Generation Z expect the brands they support to take a stand on the social issues they believe in.

Brands and businesses no longer have the luxury of avoiding political, economic and social controversies. There is no longer a separation of brand and state. A brand’s value and values are now inextricably intertwined.

In fact, choosing not to take a side on polarising issues is now just as damaging to a brand as choosing the wrong side to support. Just ask Uber. Last year, in the wake of Trump’s anti-muslim travel ban, Uber’s smaller rival, Lift donated a million dollars to the anti-travel-ban lobby. Uber stayed out of the fray. Within the space of a weekend, 200,000 Uber customers had deleted their Uber apps and switched to Lyft.

Hence the rise of brand activism. Brand activism refers to businesses getting involved, very publicly, in divisive issues. Examples include:

What’s the butterfly effect?

However, when dealing with the acute social sensitivity of Generation Z, brand activism is not without its dangers.

Brands need to be extremely careful about both the issues they choose to stand behind and the execution thereof. Superficially “politically correct” brand activism and marketing messages can easily backfire into a public relations nightmare.

Who are the scapegoats?

Dove learned the brand backlash lesson with its notorious ad campaign that involved a series of women of varying skin colours and races changing shirts and turning into one another. Although the ad should have garnered praise for its casting diversity, the good intentions were undone by the detail. At one point, a black model turned into a white model. Dove was berated on social media for its apparent whitewashing, rather than praised for its good intentions.

H&M found itself in a social media fire-storm after casting a young black boy as model in an online catalogue. Although, once again, the casting choice could be considered commendable, the appalling lack of understanding of the zeitgeist did untold damage to the H&M brand when the boy was photographed modeling a top with the words “coolest monkey in the jungle”. The racist connotations of the slogan resulted in H&M stores across South Africa being trashed by Economic Freedom Fighter supporters and saw a slew of international celebrities sever ties with the retail brand. 

Pepsi’s 2017 attempt to connect with Generation Z, in the form of an advertisement which depicted a group of diverse young people involved in a peaceful protest reminiscent of the Black Lives Matter movement marches, failed dismally when it chose to cast thin, white, privileged model, Kendall Jenner, as the lead. People were not impressed.

“Pepsi was trying to project a global a message of unity, peace and understanding…Clearly, we missed the mark.” – Pepsi Spokesperson

Watch Pepsi get Generation Z wrong:

 But perhaps it is L’Oreal that brands should learn the most from. L’Oreal has experienced not one, but two clashes with the PC-Police over two separate, well-intentioned campaigns.

L’Oreal learned the hard way that when it comes to working with “PC” talent, brands need to be careful that the values and opinions of the people they work with mirror those of the brand’s on every level, not just the obvious ones.

The first debacle occurred in 2017, shortly after L’Oreal received praise for being “woke” enough to hire a transgender model, Munroe Bergdorf as a company spokesperson.

However, days after landing the L’Oreal gig, Bergdorf posted a debatably racist tweet [insert hyperlink to tweet] directed at “all white people”. L’Oreal quickly got cold feet and severed ties with Bergdorf. Bergdorf  responded by criticising the brand, saying she was “disappointed with the company” and wrote a social media post about the irony of being on a beauty campaign that “stands for diversity” and then getting fired for talking about white privilege.

The second issue occurred in January 2018 when L’Oreal made headlines for all the right reasons for appointing hijab-wearing model, Amena Khan, as a spokesperson for the brand’s hair care range.

Once again, the bold “woke” move came undone after right-wing social media exposed a series of anti-Zionist, pro-Palestinian tweets published by Kahn back in 2014 [insert hyperlink to this story]. Not learning from its previous mistake, L’Oreal once again backed down and severed ties with its controversial new spokesperson.

The message to brands is clear. If you really want to be “woke” you need to have the insight to choose which battles to get involved in, the foresight to know that it is impossible to please everyone, and the courage to stick to your guns during the inevitable fall out.

On the flip side, let Uber be a reminder that even if it does not feel like it, not taking a side at all is the most dangerous choice of all.

Where are the global hotspots?

Anywhere in the world you find Generation Z.

By Bronwyn Williams

Image credit: Vlad Tchompalov

Video credit: RollBizTV

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