Tommie Smith and John Carlos, gold medal winners in the 1968 Olympic Games, made sports history when they lifted their black-gloved fists in protest during the medal ceremony.
Their action led to social censure and ending their lives in low-paying jobs, but it was also the starting point for athletes to think more about their commercial image and income than putting forth their personal beliefs on social, environmental or political situations.
The reality for athletes is nothing more than a reflection of how brands have behaved for many years. Brands’ most common position on controversial issues is to abstain or maintain a low profile, to avoid affecting their sales.
Consumers, however, now expect brands to take a position on the situations that affect them. The digital reality in which we live has turned them into brand interlocutors, judges and amplifiers. In other words, we went from a unidirectional discourse to a brand-consumer conversation.
For dialogue to take place, we must assume a position; therefore, brands must define the topics in which they want to be present and to what extent, and even anticipate the situations in which consumers expect a response from them. All of this must take into account the manner in which conversations happen on the internet, which are characterized by:
· Short and humanized conversations
· Greater radicalization of positions
· Viral conversations
· The permanence of everything that’s said and done
· A lack of leadership to guide the conversation; hence, anyone can intervene
Though this reality is complex, it cannot be avoided, and silence will be interpreted and judged by consumers. A clear example of this was the complaint made by Mexicans to brands that failed to take action or communicate about the 2017 earthquake.
We increasingly find examples of brands taking a stand in different situations:
Tecate beer has used its communications to send a strong message on gender violence, and has event talked about rejecting consumers who engage in this behavior.
In the NFL, quarterback Colin Kaepernick took a well-publicized posture against racial injustice by refusing to stand for the US national anthem before games.
And more recently and painfully, in relation to school massacres in the United States, we have found that brands such as Hertz, First National Bank, United, Best Western and others have begun withdrawing from agreements with the National Rifle Association.
It is important for brand interventions to be authentic and not have hidden agendas involving drumming up sales. On the contrary, the aim is to communicate a position that builds upon each brand’s values and positioning. This tightens and strengthens consumers’ emotional connections and identification with brand associations.
This helps build loyalty, trust, appeal and even inspiration.
More than a conclusion, this is an invitation to start a conversation as to how brands should behave toward a society where individuals have increasing power to have their opinions heard – and expect a response from their interlocutors. Brand humanization demands a position and it is therefore necessary to adapt to this new reality.