Bolder Thinking Blog

[Series] Social responsibility amidst recovery: Brands are taking sides

April 29th, 2021 | Rachel Arndt

In this series, our analysts discuss how brands are addressing and practicing social responsibility amidst pandemic recovery. Today, we’re examining brands that take a stand. With the world awash in civic and political discourse, brands are getting involved and increasingly finding themselves in the spotlight, aiming to balance political correctness with marketing deftness.

Check out more from the series here and here.

Voting

As the struggle for voting rights came to a head in Georgia, some brands spoke out against the restrictive voting law that was passed in the state. This reflects the growing pressure brands are under to get political despite their supposed objectivity. Those that didn’t join in the conversation were conspicuous in their absence. 69% of US consumers say it’s important that the brands they buy from are ethical.

Corporate leaders tried to have it both ways by getting political—but saying they weren’t getting political. Before Georgia lawmakers passed a new voting bill, which requires, among other things, approved ID for absentee ballots, Black business leaders ran a full-page ad in the New York Times to speak out against that bill and others. At the helm of the alliance are a former CEO of American Express and the CEO of Merck.

In the ad, the business leaders called on corporations to take a stand: “Corporate America must support our nation’s fundamental democratic principles,” they wrote. They asked fellow business people to take a “non-partisan stand for equality and democracy”—phrasing they used to try to sound objective, rather than political.

After the bill passed in Georgia, Atlanta-based Coca-Cola expressed disappointment in the news. This came after the brand tweeted, before the vote, its opposition to the bill. But the company did not put paid media toward its stance—and nor, for that matter, did the companies led by the executives in the Black Economic Alliance. This shows that brands are still afraid of investing much to publicize their potentially controversial stances. Speaking out in owned channels is one thing, but paying for placement to say the same is a step further.

Other executives joined the chorus of opposition on LinkedIn, where the general personality-driven tone makes taking a stance feel safer. The CEO of BlackRock spoke generically, saying basically the same thing: Voting is the basis of American democracy.

One of the loudest actions came from MLB, which moved the 2021 All-Star Game from Atlanta. “Major League Baseball fundamentally supports voting rights for all Americans and opposes restrictions to the ballot box,” said MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred.

The Atlanta Braves, meanwhile, were upset by the decision, saying that though the team supports voting rights, moving the All-Star Game hurt “businesses, employees, and fans in Georgia”. These two responses highlight the risks of getting political: Brands might appeal nationally to people’s values, but their actions can also have real—and unintended—consequences for local people and businesses.

Unionizing

People are starting to hold Amazon to higher standards while continuing to expect it to deliver convenience that can, at times, run counter to those standards. In response, tech companies—and Amazon in particular—are trying to frame their policies as enablers of progress and rights. 61% of Americans say brands can demonstrate social responsibility by offering benefits to all employees.

Amazon got aggressive on Twitter. The company responded directly to politicians, with one striking exchange coming in the form of an argument about whether employees were forced to urinate in water bottles. The activity on Twitter reportedly grew out of a directive from Jeff Bezos to more adamantly fight back against critics, according to Vox. Whether it changed any minds is hard to say, but it certainly got people talking. It also got people feeling differently about Amazon, however briefly: Negative sentiment on Twitter hit a seven-week high of 62% at the end of March.

Leading up to the vote (and after), Amazon ran ads boasting about its treatment of workers. These ads ran on news sites, including businessinsider.com and cnbc.com, pointing to Amazon’s clear intention of influencing the way people are reading about it in the news.

Amazon celebrated employees’ decision to forgo a union. Amazon wasn’t done with the fight in its celebration. Instead, it used a post on its corporate site to focus on messaging, saying that the anti-Amazon activists were louder than Amazon itself. Calling out its relative dearth of anti-union marketing is a notable tactic from the brand, showing that it thinks the brand—and its employees—speaks for itself. That’s quite a bit of confidence from the company, which was able to flip the narrative in its favor.

Returning to work

The “next normal” can be fraught, given state-level restrictions and the continued politicization of the pandemic. Brands tried to steer clear of politics altogether by encouraging flexible planning for travel, specifically, and the future, in general, showing how their products can support people easing into a post-pandemic world. 63% say brands should be honest about business practices.

American Express took a measured approach to encouraging travel. The company struck a measured tone by putting the decision to travel in cardholders’ hands. Meanwhile, banks heralded business re-openings. Chase addressed the re-opening economy in an exclusive event with its CEO.

When it came to vaccine information, brands played the role of supportive educator. Brands like Synchrony took to social channels to help spread vaccine awareness and facts. Others actively took on vaccine hesitance by incentivizing shots—and getting some publicity along the way. Few brands are embracing the moment by offering free products for those providing proof of COVID vaccination. Most of them opted not to pay to promote the offers, rather, they let the media and social buzz carry the message. On social media, their owned social posts received scores of comments as vaccines are often a topic of debate.

What we think: Verizon takes a step in the right direction

Brands and people alike are realizing that nothing is apolitical—and everything is connected. Though voting rights and workers’ rights may seem separate, they’re in fact connected, linked not only by the idea of rights but also by the idea that brands do play a role in civic discourse and politics. Yet some companies still fear getting political, despite their power to sway decisions and opinions. There are exceptions. Take Verizon, which grouped recent social issues together in an Instagram post. The company could have gone a step further, explicitly explaining that these events don’t exist in siloes. But the text post still was a step in the right direction; the brand actually named specific social problems, rather than just using euphemisms. As consumers increasingly see their own spending as a way to outsource their values, more brands will have to follow suit.

All images sourced via Mintel Comperemedia Omni and Mintel social media monitoring as of 4/19/21.

BJ Pichman, Research Manager, also contributed to this piece. BJ specializes in custom reporting across a variety of industries. Using Comperemedia’s omnichannel marketing tools, he delivers competitive insights and recommendations that drive business objectives.

Rachel Arndt

Rachel Arndt

Rachel Arndt is a Research Manager leading a team of analysts who deliver reports across industries to support clients with competitive insights. Rachel also researches and writes about marketing and industry trends. Her first book, Beyond Measure, came out in 2018.