Why Brands Are Under Increasing Pressure to Be Transparent About What They Believe In

There's always a risk of alienating customers who disagree

Not all brands have the freedom that Cards Against Humanity has.
Cards Against Humanity

Some brands do everything they can to avoid political controversy. Cards Against Humanity is not one of them.

Last November, the maker of the crude-yet-hilarious party game announced it was raising $2.2 million to buy a small plot of land on the U.S.-Mexican border to prevent a wall from being built on it, then dared the Trump administration to sue them over it.

This was not the first foray into national politics for the popular card game. In 2016 co-founder Max Temkin created a Super PAC called the Nuisance Committee, which purchased billboard ads written in Arabic saying, “Donald Trump, he can’t read this, but he is afraid of it.”

Before the election, the company created custom 15-card add-on packs for both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, asked fans to vote with their wallets for the candidate of their choice, and then donated all of the proceeds—more than $550,000—to Clinton’s campaign.

Taking a sharply pointed political stance is built into the DNA of the company, which was founded and is still owned by a squad of eight comedy-writing friends from the Chicago area.

“We don’t have investors, a board or shareholders,” says Temkin. “We’re accountable to ourselves. We get to choose our customers through what we do. And if there are some out there who aren’t happy that we stood up for the rights of immigrants and refugees, we’d rather they left us alone.”

Few brands have the freedom—or the chutzpah—Cards Against Humanity does. But nearly all are feeling the pressure to take stronger social, environmental and political stances, especially from the youngest consumers to flex their marketing might, Generation Z. How nimbly brands navigate that minefield is crucial to their future survival.

The new digital

The pressure to step up is driven in part by the rise of direct-to-consumer brands that see social activism as part of their primary mission. For example, with Warby Parker’s Buy a Pair, Give a Pair or Toms’ One for One shoe programs, people in developing nations receive a free pair of glasses or footwear every time someone makes a purchase.

But firms are also feeling the heat from social media-driven movements like #MeToo, #TimesUp and #BoycottNRA, which demand that brands pick a side—and do it quickly.

“Traditional brands can no longer sit on their hands and allow well-scripted corporate statements to shape who they are,” says Tripp Donnelly, CEO of digital reputation management firm REQ. “They have to be dynamic and understand they’re talking to multiple generations of people.”

The increase in brand social awareness has given rise to ad agencies that specialize in purpose-driven clients. One such agency, School in Boulder, Colo., operates with an ethos of #GiveaShit, continually working on campaigns that help fund projects for impoverished children around the world.

School founder and CEO Max Lenderman says having a clear purpose gives brands a distinct market advantage, and those that fail to recognize this will be left behind.

“Purpose is the new digital,” he says. “Brands you wouldn’t normally consider purposeful realize they have a role to play. And their customers are recognizing that this is kind of great.”

The middle path

Many brands play it safe by steering a middle path, sticking to issues important to their constituents and close to their core values. But even then, they run risks.

When the Trump administration announced plans to open up Bears Ears National Monument and other public lands to oil and mining interests last December, outdoor brands like Patagonia, REI and North Face publicly opposed the move.

Alex Thompson, REI’s vp of brand stewardship and impact, admits there was some risk in taking such a public stance, but says the response from its members was overwhelmingly positive.

This story first appeared in the April 16, 2018, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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