The streets of Hong Kong have been even noisier than usual lately, with hundreds of thousands of people making full-throated demands of the government. As the world has watched protesters clash with police in increasingly tense confrontations across the city, however, nary a peep has been heard from one particular quarter.
Despite all the energy they expend trying to show that they're aligned with consumers' needs, precious few brands have chosen to speak out about—or even innocuously allude to—what has been the top issue on most people's minds for several weeks.
Of course, what brands choose to say, or not to say, isn't really important in the grand scheme of things—whatever brand stewards and the agencies that serve them might like to think. And the people rinsing tear gas from their eyes, re-routing around transportation quagmires and carefully considering the implications of their choice of t-shirt colour aren't all that concerned with the opinion brands might have about what's going on, either. There are more important things to worry about.
But as a Hong Kong person, and as someone who's been observing brands for quite some time, I find the silence oddly deafening. I'm a permanent resident here, and my wife is a native. My personal history with Hong Kong dates back to 1993. Even so, I admit to being somewhat surprised by the bravery people are showing. I didn't fully realise Hong Kong had this in it. It's been inspiring to watch the protests and the non-violent civil disobedience. The movement has mostly been a great demonstration of the power of freedom of expression, and a great example to discuss with our son. Even if you're the most pro-Beijing hardliner, you have to respect the way the people, especially the young people, are speaking out—even more so now that each and every event puts those on the front lines in real danger.
So while part of me says, 'Who gives a damn what brands have to say?', it's becoming increasingly weird that they're not saying anything. It's disappointing that no one has found, or dared to find, some way to at least show some modicum of affinity with this inarguably significant thing that's happening.
The only examples I've seen have been small brands, such as a bakery that made cakes with protester-aligned messages. The other brands that have been mentioned in news reports about the protests have been pulled in against their will in one way or another. For example Pocari Sweat, Tempo and Pizza Hut have been variously praised and scorned over their ads with over-the-air broadcaster TVB, which is largely seen as pro-Beijing. Yoshinoya first gained local approval over some pro-protestor Facebook posts and then disgust when its establishment owner quickly disavowed them.
And I'm not stupid. No one here is. Everyone understands why brands aren't speaking out. We covered the rock and the hard place they find themselves wedged into in some detail recently (see "Showing Hong Kong some love, without irking the mainland").
In fact, the silence of the brands is a good illustration of the overall issue. Not many people have been willing to risk angering China in recent years, or even to meekly criticise it. That's understandable given the country's power and (from the brand point of view) the size of its current and future market. Yet as Hong Kong people are showing, sometimes you have to stand up for what you want, even when the opposition is formidible and the odds long.
I'm not asking brands to take a side. But with all the creativity out there in this industry, I have to believe there's a way to laud the people of Hong Kong for their spirit. If your brand is really an important part of the lives of the people here, don't you at least need to try?
Matthew Miller is managing editor of Campaign Asia-Pacific.