Last January, Uber declined to participate in an organized taxi strike amidst the immigration ban protests at JFK airport. In fact, the company even turned off surge pricing to and from the airport. But instead of leading to a quick boom in business, the move upset consumers. In a matter of days, Uber lost 200,000 customers, and people were boycotting the brand on Twitter with #DeleteUber.
An Uber spokesperson tried to clarify the situation by saying, “We’re sorry for any confusion about our earlier tweet—it was not meant to break up any strike. We wanted people to know they could use Uber to get to and from JFK at normal prices, especially last night.” Uber founder Travis Kalanick offered pro bono legal advice and promised to compensate employees who lost earnings during the ban. But the damage was already done. The competing ride sharing app Lyft pledged $1 million to the ACLU in response, and Lyft downloads surged in the following days.
This example, perhaps more than any other in recent memory, shows the cost of trying to remain neutral. For brands, it’s no longer business as usual. By ignoring the implications of a major protest, Uber offended customers and lost a considerable amount of business. As with the Kendall Jenner Pepsi ad that premiered a few months later, it’s clear that aiming to please everyone in heated social or political moments no longer works.
According to a 2017 Edelman Earned Brand Study, half of consumers believe their favorite brands are more capable of solving the world’s issues than the government. In another study, Cone Communications found that 85 percent of U.S. adults claim they would switch brands to one associated with a cause, and 88 percent say that if they found out a company was practicing irresponsible or deceptive business, they’d stop buying its products.
Even if you’re not keen on taking policy advice from Oreo, it’s undeniable that voicing an altruistic opinion on social issues can make brands more favorable to consumers.
It’s not a coincidence these beliefs coincide with the growth of influencer marketing. All branding is personal now, be it professionally or socially. Millennials want to buy products from brands that uphold their own ideal self-image, and this often means aligning oneself with issues and causes that matter to them. This goes from proudly posting a selfie while wearing Patagonia outerwear to carrying The New Yorker totes that are taking over NYC streets and subway platforms. Millennials want people to see them and immediately know what they care about.
Clothing brands like Everlane and Lingua Franca have campaigns that donate a portion of proceeds to human rights organizations. Other companies like Bombas and Toms have built their entire brand on donating a pair of socks or shoes to those in need.
While donations are a clear way to take a public stand, brands also have other avenues to stand up for something. Starbucks pledged to hire 10,000 refugees and has remained dedicated to hiring veterans. AirBnB’s Open Homes program lets people offer temporary living accommodations to those who have had to flee their home countries.
There will always be risk associated with any move that can be construed as political. But as Contently’s director of strategy Joe Lazauskas wrote after the 2016 presidential election, the benefits outweigh the potential downside:
Even if publicizing your beliefs may ostracize some potential customers, it also builds deep loyalty for those who share your values—particularly values like celebrating equality and inclusion, which many people support, regardless of political affiliation. The same goes for expressing concern and support for the diverse people who work for you. Loyalty isn’t just a marketing metric; it’s also critical for measuring the internal health of your company.
With so many reputable companies taking vocal stances on current issues, brands that don’t align with social movements will fall behind. At Cannes last year, Matter Unlimited founder Rob Holzer went as far as to say, “Brands don’t really have a choice anymore.” Consumers don’t just want great products—they want to see that companies know the difference between right and wrong.
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