Why It’s Critical Brands Take a Stand on Tough Social Issues

Marketers must have courage in the face of controversy

All brands can harness cultural moments to reach new audiences and create impact. Getty Images

At Cannes Lions during a panel I participated on this year, I sat in front of a room full of marketing and advertising execs and asked how many thought it was important for brands to take a stand on important social issues—one hand went up.

Now, this was not meant as a call-out. More than half of the winning ad campaigns we had been discussing were “socially charged”—that is, they addressed some relevant socio-political issue, from immigration to women’s rights, some with a literal viewpoint like Fearless Girl.

So, I expected a very different response from the audience, and it got me wondering: how many brands truly make using their voices for the greater good a priority within their business strategies?

Molly DeWolf Swenson
Illustration: Alex Fine

I tend to think brands don’t have the luxury of not taking a stand. Companies like Airbnb, Chipotle, Patagonia and others have demonstrated that brands can do more than offer lip service—they can build a successful business and identity on values that are coded into their DNA from the beginning. In fact, all brands can harness cultural moments to reach new audiences and create impact. It’s about finding a way to create a natural extension of internal values beyond a company’s walls.

Oreo struggled for years to reach new markets, and it wasn’t until the controversial, LGBT-supporting rainbow Oreo Facebook post that the brand hit the nail on the head. Airbnb has used its platform to take a strong pro-refugee, anti-neo-Nazi stance, with great praise from press and consumers alike. The most talked-about Super Bowl commercial this year was its direct statement on immigration.

Consumers want the companies they support to harness their power for good, not lay back and let injustices happen.

On the flip side, some brands prefer to strike a “neutral yet positive” balance, not addressing current social issues. Or, they take the blanket stance,“We support all people!” But these approaches feel outdated, and they don’t push society forward or make a positive impact. Consumers want to know: how does a brand feel about DACA? Guns? Women’s reproductive rights? Brands cannot expect to play Switzerland as the rest of the world picks a side. Consumers want the companies they support to harness their power for good, not lay back and let injustices happen.

While I don’t have a traditional marketing and advertising background, I understand the fear many brands have of walking into the sights of controversy, and I’ve been helping them successfully tackle issues that matter through innovative storytelling. When taking a stand, there’s always the risk of potential backlash from people who don’t believe in or care about the cause you’re supporting. But brands can’t let the fear of losing a few customers or viewers in the short term stop them from trying to make a long-term difference; they must still use the resources available to them for good.

As humanitarian filmmakers, RYOT is not the company brands come to for a traditional commercial approach. When we engaged Clorox, it wasn’t to promote the use of its household products; it was to show how these products also work to provide safe drinking water all over the world.

Through RYOT Studio—Oath’s award-winning, global creative hub—we work with some of the biggest brands in the world to make documentary films and advertising that matters and messages beyond “buy this product.”

Some marketers may push back on this thinking, but when brands avoid taking a stand on tough social issues and on the current news cycle, it’s a missed opportunity. Marketers must ask: What does my brand stand for? There is endless strategizing on creating brand identity, voice and personality, and it has to also include strategizing around a moral framework—some foundation of what a brand believes in and believes is worth fighting for.

This is not secondary to designing a voice on social media; it’s foundational. A brand’s morals and beliefs should inform the way it talks and interacts with consumers and their journeys and society at large, not the other way around.

Having a point of view on issues that matter to a brand—and ultimately, its consumers—is a categorical imperative. Brands don’t exist in a vacuum, nor can they claim to operate at arm’s length from our larger culture and society. Brands can embolden and change minds and help to make a positive impact, at scale.

A brand isn’t a bystander. It’s an 800-pound gorilla that has the opportunity—or, dare I say, the responsibility—to leverage not only its corporate social responsibility dollars, but also its products, audiences, media and yes, advertising, in support of the side of history it wants to be on.

The sidelines have been erased. It’s time for brands to get out there and take a stand.

Molly DeWolf Swenson (@mollydewolf) is co-founder of RYOT.

This story first appeared in the Nov. 27, 2017, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.