Are Brands Evil?

I recently wrote that companies can’t have morals, only people can. This sparked some interesting discussions on Twitter and elsewhere. I was very flattered to be quoted in a piece by Anant Rangaswami on Melt. An interesting element which I ought to surface is the distinction between a private company and a public one. In a private firm the owner(s) can take a policy stance that  may be detrimental to business. But firms that are public need a larger stakeholder acceptance to take such a stance. 

Climate change is a hot topic, pun intended. But climate change denial is also well, hot. Brands that support action to address climate change found themselves in er, hot water, when their ads were found to be funding denial content on YouTube. It is not often that companies are able to get permission from their shareholders to take a stance on matters such as say, climate change. ING restricting investments in fossil fuels or Guardian stopping ads from fossil fuel extractors are examples of firms doing good at a potential cost to their profits. Nike’s support of Colin Kaepernick is a great example of the management of a public company finding an appropriate way to express their political opinion. It worked because the opinion aligned with that of their core market. But while it is possible to take a stand, a company will not be able to endorse going against the law of the land.

So should brands not have an opinion on matters of social or political change? Not at all. In today’s cluttered media landscape it’s hard to stand out, more so with a parity product. So cause marketing is a necessary risk with the added benefit of virtue signalling. In this piece I wrote about Anouk’s launch in 2015 I include a 2×2 matrix of causes sorted by novelty and social acceptance. High novelty with low social acceptance will deliver the most shock value and hence memorability.  

But even legal causes can be fraught with danger. Last week the CEO of the Hallmark Channel’s parent company resigned, presumably in the wake of controversy over the handling of an ad showing a same-sex couple. They first ran the ad (nothing illegal in that). Then some groups complained and the ad was pulled, maybe because they thought it didn’t resonate with their core target audience. Then there were more complaints and the ad was reinstated. Who decides if the company can oppose an idea that is legal?

Satya Nadella expressing his views on India’s CAA stems from his personal belief and experience as an immigrant and does not appear to be a corporate position. Sridhar Vembu said his presence at an RSS event was also a matter of conscience and was unfazed by calls for boycotts of Zoho. He is reputed to own 88% of the company so can take such decisions unilaterally.

Supporting legal causes is a difficult business decision. Supporting illegal ones no matter how much your customers like them is not likely to be good for business. Expecting publicly owned brands and their representatives to take a stance on such matters is not realistic. If we want to change laws we need to do that as individuals, as consumers, as employees. Brands follow the lead of their customers, employees, and of course, owners. On January 30th it is appropriate to quote Mahatma Gandhi “You must be the change you want to see in the world.”

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