by Alistair Mackay (@almackay) When Vermont legalised same-sex marriage, US ice cream brand Ben & Jerry’s celebrated by renaming one of its flavours “Hubby Hubby” with an illustration of two grooms on the tub. A few years later, in support of same-sex marriage in the UK, it changed its “Oh my! Apple pie!” flavour to “Apple-y ever after” and used the same two grooms atop a wedding cake on its packaging.

This isn’t the only brand to have come out loudly in support of gay marriage. American Apparel has a range of “Legalize Gay” t-shirts, and brands as diverse as Absolut Vodka, Bud Light and Goldman Sachs have either campaigned for or openly supported gay marriage. In a context as vicious and polarised as the American “culture wars,” it shows remarkable guts on the part of these brands to take a position and stick to their principles.

Nando's diversity ad
Nando’s diversity ad

Not surprising

It seems to me that South African brands are much less inclined to venture into cultural and political debate. It’s not surprising, given our cultural diversity and fears of offending people, and our track record of angrily shutting down debate.

But it’s not great for building meaningful brands, either. When brands actually believe in something, consumers are so much more likely to care that they exist.

SA brands can’t avoid being drawn into politics, no matter how timid and risk-averse they may try to be. Woolworths, for example, has recently been targeted with protests, boycotts and social media fury because it stocks Israeli products. Virgin Active was caught up in a social media storm when it failed to react sufficiently strongly to incidents of racism taking place in its gyms.

In both cases, these brands were dragged into political debates they didn’t want.

No aspect is off-limits

No brand is safe and no aspect of the brand is off-limits. Consumers can be enraged or delighted by everything from product sourcing and value chains to how employees are treated and the causes that a brand supports. As Skin from Skunk Anansie famously sang: “Yes, it’s f*cking political. Everything’s political.”

Brands can’t avoid social, cultural and political issues — these are the context in which the brand and its employees operate, and the context through which consumers interpret the world.

And in South Africa we have some hugely important, pressing social and political problems. Imagine brands were progressive forces that led these debates, rather than trying to hide from them. Gay marriage may be a relatively middle-class concern, but what about structural exclusion or wealth redistribution? Imagine a wine farm that positioned itself on the working conditions of its labourers. Imagine a bank that campaigned for and financed large-scale public-housing developments.

Enormous emotional pull

The emotional pull that these brands would exert on members of the public would be enormous.

And just like voting isn’t the only way of making your opinion heard in politics, purchasing isn’t the only way of making your opinion heard as a consumer. Positive word of mouth is a huge asset to brands. Boycotts, negative remixing of ads, social media rants and indifference can be hugely damaging.

Here are a few ways to build socially progressive brands that consumers really care about:

  1. Understand what’s important to the public — don’t just think about the needs within your category; look at the broad priorities, gaps and anxieties of the market.
  2. Support the underdog — have a strong point of view on social issues, and take action that’s empathetic to the under-dog. SA still has huge structural exclusion. How can your brand fight that?
  3. Don’t wash — greenwashing, whitewashing and pinkwashing won’t work in this age of transparency. Your business will need to genuinely commit to the beliefs and principles of the brand in every touch-point and process. It’s not just about clever campaigns.
  4. Think about how you employ people. The distinction between employer brand and consumer brand is falling away. Brands need to appeal to people — in all of the various roles they occupy throughout the day. If you can find ways to employ more people and treat those who work for you well, the brand love that that generates will spread well beyond the people that directly benefit from it.

A much deeper relationship

By identifying the social causes, beliefs and principles that consumers really care about, and pioneering ways to bring about social change along those lines, brands can carve out a role for themselves that really matters to the people they are trying to engage. It’s a much deeper relationship with consumers that brands which simply make good products and services can ever hope to enjoy.

Alistair MackayAlistair Mackay (@almackay) is marketing manager and head of content at Yellowwood, (@askYellowwood) a leading marketing strategy and brand development consultancy. He has experience both as a brand strategist and as the digital media manager for the Democratic Alliance, and believes that innovative, insightful and generous marketing is both good for business and social change in South Africa. He contributes the monthly “Brand Politics” column, exploring lessons brands can learn and apply from politics, to MarkLives.

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