Should Your Brand Take a Stand?

January 25, 2017

brand take a stand

Should your brand stand for something? It’s easy to mistake this as a simple question. Of course, we want our brands to stand for something! However, as we venture beyond the safe confines of product and industry conversations, broader sociological, cultural, and political implications can present a challenge.

Sometimes it’s easier not to take a stand. Strong beliefs give our brands sharp edges that we naturally feel we need to round out. Those with a balance-sheet-first mindset often point out here that taking a stance in these politically and socially charged times gives 50% of the population a reason not to buy what you’re selling. That’s why it’s become accepted that politics and social issues are a “third rail” in business. Something to avoid at all costs.

On the other hand, modern consumers are overwhelmed with thousands of brand impressions each day. We have a clutter problem. Consumers today aren’t just looking for brands to purchase from. Especially the coveted millennial demographic. They’re looking for communities to be a part of. Brands worth belonging to are the ones that appeal to us emotionally.

It’s a delicate balance. Just what should your brand stand for and when?

Know Who You Are, Who You Serve

Consumers aren’t the only ones overwhelmed. With an ever-evolving digital ecosystem, marketers have trouble keeping up too. Many resort to “checklist marketing” — checking off social networks and content like arbitrary items on a checklist. Worse still, under these harried conditions we get lazy with our brand building.

Lee Clow, the ad-man responsible for Apple’s iconic 1984 commercial, said that, “The reality of the new media world is that if your brand does not have a belief, if it does not have a soul and does not correctly architect its messages everywhere it touches consumers, it can become irrelevant. It can be ignored, or even become a focal point for online contempt.” In short, you have to be something before you can build something.

“Brands that we look to, that are charismatic, know their audience. They know who they are,” as Carla Johnson of Type A Communications recently shared with me during a podcast interview. Who are you? More importantly, who do you serve? What matters most to them? If you know who you are, you can start to look at opportunities for social and even political alignment.

Look for Alignment

In September 2014, CVS Pharmacy turned a lot of heads by announcing that the chain would no longer be selling cigarettes. “By eliminating the sale of cigarettes and tobacco products in our stores, we can make a difference in the health of all Americans,” CVS CEO Larry Merlo said when the ban took effect. Health is at the very heart of the CVS brand.

Thinx makes period-proof underwear. In addition to adopting an authentic, transparent brand voice on what some consider a taboo topic, Thinx regularly shares updates on womens’ health issues and feminism in their email newsletter. A recent edition featured a Texas judge ruling that doctors could refuse care on grounds of religious freedom along with a summary of artists not performing at the Trump inauguration. Feminism and women’s health are the cornerstones of the Thinx brand.

Tea Collection is a children’s clothing company with globally inspired designs. Following the recent election, they sent an impassioned email to their customers expressing concerns on the President Trump’s xenophobic rhetoric. “We want to open up the world for all children — to celebrate the common humanity that we share with all people no matter the color of our skin or the nationality of our birth.” A diverse, global perspective is at the core of the Tea brand.

Take a Stand

Luvvie Ajayi is an author, speaker, and digital strategist. As she notes, she “thrives at the intersection of comedy, technology, and activism.” A simple Venn diagram on her website’s about page reinforces this. This could be a useful exercise for your brand. Draw two overlapping circles and use them to answer — who you are, who you serve, and what you stand for.

As Denise Lee Yohn says in her book, What Great Brands Do, you have to ask yourself, “what business are you really in?” When you know who you are and, more importantly, who your audience is, you can look for alignment in the social and political issues that mean the most to them.

Ultimately, a brand that stands for something stands out and isn’t that what we’re all looking to do?

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is a strategist, speaker, educator, and author of Brand Now: How to Stand Out in a Crowded, Distracted World and Get Scrappy: Smarter Digital Marketing for Businesses Big and Small. He is the Chief Brand Strategist at Brand Driven Digital, an educator at the University of Iowa, and host of the On Brand podcast. More about Nick.