Andy Oakes of Bluestripe, ‘Brands can be brave but need to be prepared’

Feb 7th, 2018

Andy Oakes

This week, Andy Oakes, Founder of Bluestripe and One Question Advisory Board Member discusses the power of brands and their political responsibilities. 

At a time when political culture has become so polarised, brands are being faced with a whole new set of challenges and risks, challenges which have never been faced before. As brands are becoming more comfortable with the prospect of championing political causes, it’s worth asking: is it okay for them to get involved in politics? And if so, when? The goal of remaining relevant and true to their brand values has never been more difficult

Many will argue that brands don’t need to take a political or social stance. Many will think that the risk outweighs the potential benefits. Many will argue that there is no point in taking a stance unless it’s authentic and backed up by actions.

Let’s look at the case of Virgin Trains. They outraged those on the right on Twitter with their stance on not stocking the Daily Mail. Virgin claimed that this was a response to their staff being upset at some the editorial angles that ‘newspaper’ took. The immediate reaction was split down political lines with many praising the brave move and others citing this as a restriction on freedom of speech and tantamount to censorship.

Later that week, it emerged that the Mail only sold seventy copies a week on Virgin Trains so it seemed that this was more of a commercial decision rather than an ethical one. And then Richard Branson weighed in and reversed the decision and one suspects that a brand manager somewhere was tearing their hair out.

Let’s take a look at Starbucks. In response to US  Donald Trump’s executive order temporarily halting US travel for individuals from several Muslim-majority nations, Starbucks issued a statement saying that it would hire 10,000 refugees. Unsurprisingly, Trump’s base on Twitter was mobilised and the almost inevitable #BanStarbucks began trending. Despite this, many consumers praised the brand for taking a stand.

So, there’s an opportunity for brands to align with causes and this could bring rewards but only if its backed with authenticity and the balls to stand up to the barrage you will inevitably get of social media. Virgin looked daft for executing a pretty rapid reverse ferret when the criticism started flying. Starbucks stuck their guns and looked (to me) all the better for it.

In some cases, the reasons for a brand taking a stand are much more close to home. When Google came out against Trump’s travel ban who was the target audience? For a company who regularly hires immigrants, President Trump’s immigration ban promised to dramatically impact a significant segment of its workforce. It’s easy to see how a lack of public opposition to the ban could be interpreted as implicit support. For those workers, the silence from their company would ring uncomfortably loud and clear.

So where does this all lead? We are living in unprecedented political and social times and I’m not sure that brands will thrive by sitting on the sidelines. I want to know what they stand for, I want to know if they are ‘on my side’ The decision on brands and to take a public stand (on one side or another) carries considerable risk, as recent disputes outlined above illustrate. But is staying neutral no longer an option. My advice? Pick a side, be brave, be authentic and hold on tight.

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