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The brand risk of playing it safe

It's no longer possible to not offend anyone.

5 min read

Marketing Strategy

Chess game


For a long time, brands tried to be apolitical.  They wanted to stay out of divisive issues.

This makes sense because the concept of branding really evolved during the “mass market” era.  To be successful, brands had to be “plain vanilla” because they wanted as big a market as possible. Yet, much like the explosion of channels led by social media has fragmented media, the same is happening to brands.

In the near future, a brand that doesn’t pick sides on a divisive issue is going to be a brand without many customers.

You’re either a FOX or MSNBC viewer will morph into NIKE vs Under Armour, with the same connotations.

“Are we at at the dawn of an era where we’ll consume along political lines?” asks Fortune.

Yes, we are. Not just political lines, though that is where it has begun. In this “post-trust” era, consumers are holding brands accountable for their decisions and the appearance of “aiding the enemy.”

Recently, we saw this with the grassroots effort to demand that Shopify take down the Breitbart site they host. Though I am no fan of Breitbart, I appreciate that Shopify stood their ground on free speech. At the same time, it’s not a big stretch to see a company like Shopify deciding that either:

  1. We can’t serve this type of customer because we don’t agree with their philosophy, or
  2. We’re willing to serve this type of customer, but we’re not willing to deal with the negative backlash of doing so.

Though the Washington Post says that, “in terms of large-scale influence, analysts say it’s unlikely boycotts will make or break mainstream retailers,” I suggest that is wishful thinking.

We’ll leave aside the fact that mainstream retailers (except Amazon and Walmart of course) are getting crushed left and right, so it may not be the best vertical to pick, and take a step back.

Boycotts signal values

While the primary objective of a  boycott is revenue impact, it is also a “signal.” When you join a boycott, you are telling your friends and family, “I believe firmly in this issue.” (Presumably, you are taking away the money you would otherwise spend and finding a substitute, so ideally you are making a sacrifice in your own tastes, but that is a side issue.)

Most of us seem to recognize that we are living in a “black swan” type moment here. Just because boycotts didn’t work in the past, doesn’t mean they won’t work in the future.

Boycotts are a signal of values. Customers signal it and now, increasingly, some brands are signaling it as well.

Whether at the behest of founders, management, or employees, some brands are taking a boycott stance of their own.

We have seen an advertising boycott of Breitbart News,  the NBA All-Star Game moved from North CarolinaSalesforce punish the state of Indiana, and even outdoor retailers boycott Utah over public land policies.

These are all signals about what the brand stands for beyond the normal integrity, commitment to customers, etc.

So, let’s think about this.

Empowered consumers are attacking brands that provide a service to an organization they don’t like.  Some brands are attacking states or other organizations.

Essentially, the lines are being drawn and it comes down, ironically, to something that is at the core of branding 101…TRUST.

Trust is the core issue

“Everything about modern life works against community and trust,” offers a powerful article in the Washington Post.

There’s a worldwide crisis in trust. The Edelman Trust Barometer only provides data for what we know.

In times of high anxiety, we all need comfort.

Maybe it’s comfort food or a good movie, but it will be increasingly the comfort of knowing that money we spend is firmly aligned to our values.

Knowing that our friends approve or disapprove of our purchases will become a key “purchase consideration.”  Once customers buy, there will be an expectation of “signaling” to reaffirm membership in a group that is for or against something.  Lastly, because trust is at a premium, people will not just take your word for it, you’ll have to prove it (which is where the blockchain-enabled marketer can help future customers).

What this means for branding’s future

First off, it will no longer be palatable to say, “We just provide the service, we don’t condone or endorse the organization.”

In the eyes of an increasing number of people, this is the equivalent of being an arms merchant and saying, “We just sell to both sides and let them sort it out.”

Either you make a call, or the call is made for you, as New Balance found out the hard way.

In this world of brands taking a side, that’s not going to cut it.  Claiming you want to serve everyone is essentially opening up a competitive opportunity for the brand that says, “We’re only going to serve Community X.”

Before social media and before blockchains (where a brand can prove that it spends in line with its values), this wasn’t a profitable strategy.

Pretty soon it will be.

And it may be the best strategy.

Jeremy Epstein, CEO of Never Stop Marketing, has 20 years of international marketing experience in helping to bring innovative technologies into the mainstream.  Most recently, Jeremy was VP, Marketing at Sprinklr which grew from a $20 million valuation and 30 people to $1.3 billion valuation and 900 people in 3 years. Jeremy currently works with some of the leading and most innovative companies in the blockchain/decentralization space including OB1 and OpenBazaar.  In December of 2016, he edited and published a collaborative eBook with 33 of the top influencers and thought-leaders called “Blockchains in the Mainstream: When Will Everyone Else Know?”