Tanja Crnogorac
Jul 30, 2020

Trying times are times for trying

Superunion's strategy director offers some advice for finding the line between opportunistic and authentic at times when people expect a brand to respond to cultural shifts.

These are the brands you want to emulate.
These are the brands you want to emulate.

It’s not easy being a brand today. In the quest for relevancy and alignment with audience values, there’s pressure to take a stand and respond to cultural change, yet that comes with risk of being scrutinized and criticized for being opportunistic.

Conversely, silence can be read as complicity—customers may disown you and go elsewhere. Cultural conversations are evolving at speed—from ‘Me Too’ to ‘Black Lives Matter’ (not forgetting the sustainability agenda). People expect a response from brands in trying times, but how should they respond is the big question. Where’s the line between opportunistic and authentic?

Get out into the real world

Timing is of the essence in most of these situations, but there’s nothing worse than a half-baked gesture that blends into a sea of sameness or—worse—reeks of inauthenticity. To prevent that, brands need to stop tiptoeing around the cultural line.

Until now the crisis playbook has been broadly homogenous. Brands post the same generic messages of support and make donations that look insignificant compared to massive profits, so it’s no surprise many have received flak.

To be culturally relevant, brands need to be part of culture. They need to spend less time in closed-door boardrooms, and actively go out into the real world. They need to deepen their understanding on issues so they can address them in a genuine and authentic way.

Don’t wait to get involved. Be proactive, not reactive. Join communities; be part of the dialogue. Spend more time listening than speaking. Understand the complexities that shape the modern world and be in sync with culture to build credibility.

With an in-house activist manager, Ben & Jerry’s as a brand has always had its roots in social justice. During these turbulent times, they have the credibility to speak out because they have always been part of the conversation.

Fewer knee-jerk reactions, more reflection

People around the world are trying to make sense of recent events and this has meant the trend for mindfulness and meditation continues to rise. As people reflect, so too should brands, and being in the spotlight should not be their motivator. Instead, cultural moments are opportunities for brands to consider what their role should be and what they can really stand for.

The first step is to think about if you should even be part of the conversation. Is it relevant to your brand? Can you give momentum to the movement? Can you have a real role to play to move culture forward, or should you just get out of the way?

If you can’t walk the walk you shouldn’t talk the talk. Know what you want to say and be true to your brand values. Understand what’s important to your audience, and what your contribution could be. Yorkshire Tea in the UK had a refreshingly honest response to a customer praising them for not supporting the BLM movement. An example of a brand acknowledging it has a role to play but stating that it’s taking the time to reflect before producing a knee-jerk reaction.

A little humanity goes a long way

If you choose to respond, respond like a human, not a corporation.

A fantastic example of this comes from Jeremy Bullmore’s: ‘More Bull More’ where he reflects on his experience with Air Canada after a bumpy landing:

He writes:

I was going to hear the captain explain that an unusual crosswind component over the threshold of Runway 27 Left over-integrated with the jet vortex from a departing 747 thus precipitating acute wind-shear.

But he didn’t say that or anything like it. In a measured Canadian voice, he said: “Ladies and Gentlemen, this is Captain Cooper speaking. I’d like you to know that I’ve been a qualified commercial pilot for over 15 years, 10 of them with Air Canada—and that’s the worst f*****g landing I’ve ever made. As soon as we arrive at the gate, I shall come through the cabin and apologise to you in person.”

[…] We got to the gate… the plane came to a halt… Captain Cooper appeared through the curtains—and the entire cabin erupted in applause.

There’s something to be said about having humility in moments like these. If you admit to a blunder people are more forgiving. It reveals your humanity, it makes you a person, and most importantly, it fosters respect and builds trust.

Realizing and admitting you’ve failed to do enough is okay, just don’t make it generic and formulaic. Be personal, be vulnerable, be human. Don’t step back, step up. KFC’s advertising campaign when it ran out of chicken was an excellent example of how to do this.

Don’t act because you have to. Act because you want to.

A sombre Instagram post is meaningless when it comes from a multi-billion-dollar company with the power to do much more —Scott Galloway.

Brands from East to West have been confronted with moral obligations and had their own awakening. Whilst a commonplace reaction from brands is to issue a note of solidarity and commit to a donation, the brands that stand out are the ones with real intent. Brands that find comfort in the uncomfortable. That have the courage to shake things up. That put their money where their mouth is—and no one does it quite like Nike.

This moment has also acted as a catalyst for Nike to look inwards and admit they haven’t been doing enough. Showing openness to change speaks to their humility and desire to do more.

So when you do choose to act, be all in. Be true to who you are. Make it distinctly yours. Don’t do it because you have to do it. Do it because you want to. Because people can see through empty words and brands are no different.

It’s never too late

You can look at the glass half full or half empty. Maybe some will say it’s too little, too late, but I’m an optimist, and progression is messy. We need more creativity, more humility, more acts of courage, more waves of wokeness. So I say, don’t be afraid.

Don’t be afraid to engage, to think beyond, to ask the right questions, to become a responsive part of the solution. The future belongs to those who believe in better. Afterall, trying times are times for trying—so get out there.

Tanja Crnogorac is strategy director at Superunion in Singapore.

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