Brand Citizens: Take a Stand

Did Google damage its brand image when it compromised its core values, founded as they are on ethical principles that include freedom of speech, when it kowtowed to the Chinese government‘s strict communication guidelines? Did Nestlé compromise its global brand reputation for independence when it distanced itself from Danish brands and asserted its Swiss origins during the recent cartoon blasphemy controversy?

United Colors of Benetton’s early ’80s vision, tolerance toward other cultures, languages, religions, and sexual orientations, has never been more relevant. And the issue of brand ethics has never been hotter. In the past, brands seemed to have a eel-like ability to slip past political or religious controversy. But now the clash between local cultures and global brands seems unavoidable. What should brand builders do to prepare for such inevitable challenges — challenges that force brands to take a stand and, in so doing, gather enemies as well as fans?

Let’s be clear: the global-only campaign does not exist. It did in the past, but as the Internet has secured a presence in everyone’s lives, all campaigns, no matter how parochially intended, are global in reach the minute they go live. Ask the smallest online retailers, and they’ll confirm their client portfolios represent international audiences, even if they rarely had such ambitions. On the other side of the coin, the days when McDonald’s was able to celebrate Christmas in Scandinavia, offer wine in France, and abstain from alcohol in Muslim countries are past. Or are they?

It’s a difficult balance to strike. For brands to create an impact, they must appeal to local markets. Needless to say, the required tone of voice is different in each market. A global, single message that appeals to everyone on earth would likely be bland and rarely workable. On the other hand, we’re reaching a stage at which brands cannot retain local approaches within audience borders.

What’s the solution? The answer is simple, but execution is difficult.

Brands must take a stand and, more important, prepare themselves for the inevitable challenge. As with all crises management, preparedness depends on predicting conflict before it appears. If you happen to be an airline company, for example, responding to an aircraft crash should be part of your crisis management plans. If you’re a poultry grower, avian flu or other disease issues should be accounted for. But these eventualities are obvious. When it comes to global versus local culture clashes, the scope for crises is unlimited. So, here’s what you should do.

Comprehend your brand as a world citizen, and ask yourself how your brand sees the world. What role would your brand take as a sentient being? Here are three essential questions your brand needs to answer, locally as well as globally, to prepare itself for steadily increasing pressure to express an opinion:

  • Should your brand communicate its country of origin, and should its nationality be an important brand ingredient?
  • What’s your brand’s stand on business ethics, world politics, sex, religion, and other sources of socioeconomic controversy?
  • What’s your brand’s opinion of its competitors? Does it publicly recognize them and capitalize on their weaknesses when opportune?

Once upon a time, not taking stand on these questions was a strategic option. And it may remain so for some time to come. But as brands increasingly swim with the tides of our lives — we live with them, drink with them, breathe with them, and sleep with them — they develop a greater presence in individual lives and collective existences. As companions in consumers’ lives, people develop expectations of brands. Whether you’ve prepared your brand for its role as a world citizen or not, your audiences will tacitly confer such responsibilities on it. Your brand must rise to a growing responsibility for having, and sharing, opinions.

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