PR Moments where Brands Took a Stand: The Good & The Bad
It takes bravery to stand on the right side of history. Social change is influenced by the masses and when collective voices call, it is important that powerful institutions and organisations listen and respond.
The general public of the United Kingdom largely lacks confidence in its political institutions, with this being a common global theme, and so it is the responsibility of other institutions to step up and show solidarity with society. According to a 2018 Edelman Earned Brand study, nearly two-thirds of consumers around the world will buy or boycott a brand purely based on its stance on a social or political issue.
As a result, many brands and companies around the world have taken concrete action to support important social and political causes and incorporate that messaging as part of their brand identity, at times despite significant backlash. Here is a breakdown of some examples:
Chobani Yogurt – Supporting Refugees
Chobani Yogurt CEO Hamdi Ulukaya showed bold leadership, after being so moved by a 2014 front page photo in the New York Times of a female refugee with two children travelling with partial belongings in Iraq. The photo helped inspire Ulukaya to enact a policy of hiring refugees at his company.
Ulukaya is an immigrant himself, having moved to the United States from Turkey to study an English degree. From humble beginnings, he bought a recently closed Kraft Foods factory in New York and built Chobani Yogurt to become a billion dollar enterprise and second largest yogurt manufacturer in the United States.
Of it’s 2,000 employees, Chobani has announced that 30% of its current employees are immigrants or refugees. The global refugee crisis is worsening and countries and brands can look to Ulukaya as a leader on how a company can help solve a global issue with empathy. Ulukaya has also created a not-for-profit organization called the Tent Foundation, which is a collection of businesses including Johnson & Johnson, AirBnb, UPS and many more that are committed to take action to help refugees. Ulukaya has personally pledged much of his fortune to the organisation.
Standing up for his beliefs did not make Ulukaya a popular figure across the political spectrum, and he unfortunately received death threats, as well as boycotts to buy Chobani products across social media and right-wing websites. However, the positives out-weighed the negatives, creating 55% positive brand sentiment and generating new customers with comments such as, “Adding @Chobani to weekly shopping list.” There were 16,300 mentions of Chobani across 3 days, with trending hashtags including #BuyChobani.
So what did Chobani get right in publicising this message of supporting immigrants? It played into their overall brand philosophy of giving back to communities, including donating 10% of its own shares to its employees. The message can be seen by consumers as authentic and as part of a modern, progressive brand.
Delta Airlines – Remaining Neutral at a Cost
The airline’s 2018 decision to cut ties with the National Rifle Association, during a national debate around gun laws, sent shockwaves through the 2nd amendment rights activism community.
Amidst increased rates of gun violence and mass shootings, many human rights activists had called for stricter gun laws to help curb the number of deaths. The polarising issue in the United States had been largely split between political ideologies: those on the right who claim to be in support of their 2nd amendment right to bear arms; and those on the left who champion human rights above the right to carry a weapon.
Due to the large demonstrations and ongoing political debate, Delta airlines decided to remain neutral towards the issue and therefore decided to end its discount program for members of the pro-2nd amendment National Rifle Association, which had spent a large amount of money on political donations and lobbying to prevent the passage of stricter gun legislation.
As a result of the decisive action by Delta, the state of Georgia, where the airline’s headquarters are located, decided to end a major tax exemption that costs the airline over $40 million USD in taxes. Despite this, Delta CEO Ed Bastian stood by the company’s decision.
So why was this a business fiasco? Whilst Delta’s decision to remain neutral should be commended, it seems that this was an over-play on a small discount that had actually only ever been redeemed by 13 people. The association could have been quietly removed, but instead Delta chose to publicly announce a ‘non-political’ brand-stance that cost them a huge amount of money.
US Tech Companies – Standing with Immigrants
President Donald Trump’s 2017 decision to sign an executive order, halting the U.S. acceptance of Syrian refugees and banning immigration form seven muslim-majority countries, was mostly met with huge praise from his supporters and enormous outrage from Democrats, activists, business leaders, and many other Americans.
The order, which many labelled as blatantly racist and a complete disregard for human rights, sparked enormous protests across the country. The ban would also have a significant effect on many United States businesses with over 17 percent of the country’s workforce composed of immigrants.
Silicon valley and its tech companies would see a heavy impact on their ability to hire skilled tech workers and on their manufacturing capabilities as a result of the order, and almost 100 US technology companies decided to join together to file a legal brief opposing President Trump’s travel ban. Apple, Facebook, Microsoft, and Google were some of the almost 100 tech companies that signed up for the legal fight. Apple CEO Tim Cook said in an email to Apple employees that, “it is not a policy we support” and he asserted that “Apple would not exist without immigration.”
Why was this a good decision by Google et al? The courage of these brands to stand against the sitting President and take a moral stance in line with their company philosophies, staff loyalty and diverse customer base, gave them access to a wealth and diverse set of positive public opinions. Their staff are core to their success and so their stance was as much a HR statement as it was a public statement. Combined with their in-general, modern, inclusive, and global audiences, these major tech brands effectively proved that their global ethics were bigger than domestic trends.
Be Bold and Be Genuine
In an increasingly polarised, socially unequal and politically volatile world, brands have an obligation to show consumers where they stand, and utilise their power to align with their own beliefs.
Reflecting on how politically engaged and conscious the millennial generation is, and coupled with the influence that has on their consumption, it is absolutely in brands interest to be engaged and active.
But only if the brands are ready to make a bold statement that fits into their core audiences or progressive philosophies. Because there is no going back once public announcements are made, and brands may then rely on positive opinions to drown out negative noise; which cannot happen when standing on neutral ground.