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Branding and Activism: Stepping Up or Stepping In It

“Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything.” – Colin Kaepernick

One of the most talked-about TV ads of 2018 was released by Nike in September. It featured Colin Kaepernick, an NFL quarterback known for taking a knee during the National Anthem. Despite the ongoing controversy surrounding Kaepernick and his actions, Nike decided to take a stand with him.

With the migration to a digital world, brands are finding it harder than ever to stay away from issues involving human rights, discrimination and crime. With such easy access to information, loyal brand enthusiasts are examining their favorite companies to see how they stand on societal issues. So, should brands take a stand? Is the risk greater than the reward?

The public relations giant Edelman published a 2018 global study on how brands can strengthen and protect relationships with consumers. The study found that 64 percent of consumers are now self-identifying as belief-driven buyers, a 13 percent increase since 2017.

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For eons, people have been told to never discuss religion or politics in polite company. The Edelman study shows that brands can begin to move away from this hyper-sensitive approach. Today, a company may staunchly support a person or cause, even though it may lose market share. The key is to determine what can be gained by publicly stating or acting on a position, including those involving political issues and religious beliefs.

Buyers have faith in brands as agents of change. According to the survey, 46 percent of people believe brands have better ideas for solving our country’s problems than our government, and 53 percent believe brands are more effective in solving social ills. That’s a lot of loyalty.

Clearly, cause-related marketing and branding are on the rise, and many consumers are supporting brands that align with their values. But let’s go back to my question: Is being an overt advocate or ambassador for a stated cause a good strategy for established brands? The answer to that requires some soul searching.

By taking a stand, a company risks losing customers and upsetting stakeholders. That’s a given. It might also appear disingenuous or opportunistic. Is a company jumping on the bandwagon because so many others are too? Does the position it is championing harmonize with its past activities and statements?

It all boils down to being true to yourself. Before developing a public stance, a company must reflect on its history and any moral and ethical underpinnings it holds dear. If the brand can sincerely take a position, it becomes more attractive to consumers with a similar outlook. And that, more than ever, will likely result in growing market share and brand loyalty.

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