- There is no winning for brands in today's hyper-polarized and divisive environment, where the social media outrage cycle runs on a constant loop.
- Brands inevitably end up being perceived as political, whether they take outright stances or not.
- The solution is for brands to remain true to their own as well as their consumers values, say experts.
The outrage cycle has always been a constant feature of social media. But the pace, scale and extent of that outrage is now unprecedented, with marketers swiftly getting swept up in a swirl of discontent.
Just ask Keurig. The coffee company was one of the first brands to announce that it was pulling its ads on Fox News host Sean Hannity's show last weekend, following the host's interview on Friday with Roy Moore, in which critics argued that he was too easy on Moore.
Soon enough, many on the right were calling for Hannity's supporters to boycott Keurig, with some people going as far as to post videos of themselves smashing their Keurig coffee machines. And not long after, Keurig's CEO Bob Gamgort was backpedaling and apologizing for "taking sides."
Keurig is just the latest example of how the outrage cycle today runs on a loop. A marketers finds itself in the middle of a hot-button ideological issue – whether it asked to be there or not. There is backlash. And then there is counter-backlash to that backlash. Until another brand find itself in the thick of a similar maelstrom, and the cycle kickstarts all over again.
Basically, there is no winning for brands in today's hyper-polarized and divisive environment. Take a stand on a hot-button issue, and get pummeled by the conservatives. Or don't, and get roasted by the progressives. Markerters — already wary of entering the political fray — now find themselves are stuck between a rock and a hard place. Almost everything is a potential minefield.
A Catch-22 situation
"The social media sparring ushered in with the Trump era creates a Catch-22 for brands," John Barker, founder of ad agency Barker with clients such as Aston Martin and Bennigan's, told Business Insider. "It is very difficult to navigate the gauntlet that awaits regarding anything that appears to lean one way or another."
Brian Collins, co-founder and chief creative officer of brand strategy and design company Collins, agreed.
"Whether you are acting and choosing to be on your front foot about an issue, or reacting when you are involuntarily dragged into it, there is no escape," he said. "There are trapdoors and tripwires for brands in every direction."
Marketers for years have been told to join in on conversations on social media, align their values with those of their consumers and not be afraid to take stands. And many, from Starbucks and Airbnb to Nordstrom have risen up to the occasion. But increasingly, doing that means opening themselves up to backlash.
When brands take seemingly political stances, they invite all kinds of risks that they’re not necessarily equipped to face. And with the likelihood of them being unwittingly caught in the middle of a social media crossfire only increasing, many brands have veered in the direction of insularity, or worse, back peddling. That's exactly what happened Keurig and Volvo this week.
"Brands are quietly and effectively keeping their commitments to the environment, diversity and immigration, under the radar, without a backlash. This will only continue," said Chris Allieri, principal of Mulberry & Astor, a public relations, branding, and marketing agency. "Few brands have taken positions and stuck to them."
'Neutrality is not an option'
But being insular and retreating is hardly the solution, at least not in the long term. Corporate values play an increasingly large role in customers' shopping decisions today, and tying a brand to certain values is one way to differentiate, stand out from the crowd and create a passionate consumer base.
"There's no winning if you’re playing yesterday’s game," said Jay Porter, president at PR firm Edelman Chicago. "A lot of brands are trapped in the past, where they were apolitical and today, where they are expected to talk about social issues."
Some of the biggest brands including Levi's and Coca-Cola built their brands on the basis of being 'for everyone.' But today, "brands have to pick sides, neutrality is not an option." Collins said. "Not weighing in on everything is an option, but not weighing in on anything is not an option."
That is because brands don't just enter the conversations at their own behest. They can just as easily be dragged into the conversation by activists and trolls. In such a situation, the best thing to do is to be prepared and have relevant response protocols in place. So when something goes wrong, such as when the right starts smashing your products as was the case with Keurig, the reflex is not to panic and backtrack.
Don't cave in
"Brands have to lean into shared values with their consumers and align those values with their internal stakeholders in order to respond to these situations," said Porter. "When brands are not aligned and redact or change their stances — that’s where activists and trolls lean in, because they small fear."
Brands have to live at the intersection of what's authentic to them and what's relevant to their consumers, said Collins.
"That is what will help tide over today's climate," he said.
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