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Should brands take a political stand?

It is no longer possible for them to remain apolitical, feel experts

Pankti Mehta Kadakia
Published: Aug 23, 2019 04:55:02 PM IST
Updated: Aug 23, 2019 07:36:48 PM IST

Should brands take a political stand?Image: Getty Images

Believe in something—even if it means sacrificing everything.

That now-iconic line is from a now-iconic 2018 Nike advertisement featuring ‘outcast’ American football player and civil rights activist Colin Kaepernick, polarising for kneeling during the national anthem, to draw attention to racist police killings and other atrocities against African-Americans. Nike took a massive gamble—and an unequivocal stand—by making Kaepernick the face of its global campaign, especially after US President Donald Trump had publicly raged against him.

Nike saw its fair share of protests too—hashtags #JustBurnIt and #BoycottNike both trended, as protestors destroyed company products. However, a large community applauded the brand for its gutsy move—in fact, CBS reported that Nike’s shares surged 36 percent on the year by end of September 2018—and a steep 5 percent since the advertisement first aired on Labour Day, September 3. Nike’s overall value increased by $6 billion until the end of the month.

An October 2018 study by public relations company Edelman says 64 percent of consumers around the world will buy or boycott a brand solely based on its position on a political or social issue. Belief-driven buyers are now the majority across markets, it added.

Closer home, brands such as Zomato and Surf Excel have dealt with recent controversies—Surf Excel for a Holi advertisement featuring multiple religions; Zomato, when a user said it refused an order from a Muslim delivery boy. Zomato took a clear stand, saying ‘food has no religion’; Surf Excel has made no further statement. In this politically charged environment, should brands stand up for their beliefs?

“Brands don’t have the choice to sit on the fence anymore. People expect much more from all their authority figures, including the brands they follow. But how you articulate your stand makes the difference,” says Karthik Srinivasan, communications consultant and author of Be Social, a book on personal branding through social media.

“We live in a time when issues around the world have varying shades of grey. But the opinions surrounding them are now seen in stark black or white,” agrees S Subramanyeswar ‘Subbu’, group chief strategy officer, Mullenlowe Lintas Group. “So it is almost impossible for any major brand to be apolitical. If the brand formulates its own unique point of view, people are more likely to wear it proudly as a badge. Like Starbucks and Airbnb, it needs to be clear what it stands for and what it fights against.”

(This story appears in the 13 September, 2019 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)

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