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Economy

Do Brands Have A Role To Play In Social Conflicts?

Corporations usually try to stay clear of controversy. But there may be benefits, in some cases, to taking sides.

American football quarterback Colin Kaepernick is the committed face of Nike.
American football quarterback Colin Kaepernick is the committed face of Nike.
Daniela Arce

-Analysis-

SANTIAGO — Amid the upheaval in Chile and elsewhere in Latin America, some brands seem to have joined the fray by taking unusual measures like cutting prices on transportation apps, for example. And while some might dismiss such moves as opportunistic, others see them as real acts of solidarity.

There's also the argument, in some cases, that the actions are consistent with a given brand's purpose and reputation. Either way, experts agree that there's nothing really unusual about brands becoming part of an agitated social period, and many see it as inevitable given the active role they seek in society. ​

Choosing sides

Certain brands see it as part of their DNA to take a position on events. Sportswear brand Nike has often courted controversy by identifying with value-laden positions, and while these were decisions relating to particular developments and not large-scale social crises, they illustrate how a brand can have an opinion.

In 2018 and 2019 it teamed up with the American football player Colin Kaepernick — who refused to stand for the U.S. national anthem to protest against racism against black Americans — as the face of the 30th anniversary of its "Just Do It" slogan. By doing so, Nike actively chose to enter the national controversy over Kaepernick's stance.

The company faced further controversy this year when it had to decide whether or not to take its Air Max 1 USA trainers off the market for displaying the Betsy Ross, the original flag of the American colonies. Kaepernick complained it represented a time when slavery was in force in several American colonies.

Juan Carlos Bustamante, a marketing expert and university lecturer in Guayaquil, Ecuador, says this type of decision means "taking a public stance on a situation of relevance to society," and making that part of the firm's "identity, its strategy and communication." It is an approach that seems to play well with today's young consumers, who tend to prefer brands that share their values and are willing to boycott firms that go against social principles.

Brands have economic and cultural power that makes them catalysts for change.

Gian Marco la Barbera, chief operating officer of the Brazilian marketing firm iFruit, and Gabriela Kleeberg, a crisis management lecturer at Peru's private USMP university, agree it is not only natural, but a duty for brands to be present in social situations.

Even in critical conditions, says Barbera, brands need to keep selling every day. "But they need to be careful how they communicate their campaigns to avoid conflict," he adds. "In times of crisis, they need to consider their communication approach carefully before launching any campaign."

Kleeberg, for her part, likens organizations to living, human entities. "They create relations based on a system of organizational values and within a mission, vision and purpose," she says. "Only this way will a firm know when it must communicate, and how to do it with coherence, responsibility and empathy." ​

Juan Carlos Bustamante says brands have seen their social importance and roles rise to the point where "they are no longer just economic but also social entities, though less recognized as such." Using brands in social campaigns or to back a movement, he says, means going beyond acting as an agent of change to enter uncharted territory.

"Brands have economic and cultural power that makes them catalysts for change and allows them to show their social responsibility and real leadership," he says. "And yet, it's important to note that this isn't about associating the brand with a charity organization, a good cause or a social moment. It's about a firm using a brand's ability to influence social behavior and thus strengthen its reputation."

Treading carefully

But it's also crucial that they not come across as opportunists. Barbera says firms must not exploit the weak or critical situations like food shortages or public and social calamities. One must "understand" the moment, he says, "and respect the situation. Brands must take part in a moderate and respectful manner, in such a way as not to incite violence or increase confrontation." ​

When brands do get involved, says Kleeberg, they should do so with constructive messages, and only after a period of listening and reflection. "It's worth asking yourself, is there something we can do or change in this situation?" she says. "Some social crises are a protest against the system and we all have a role in that system, and an opportunity to do things differently."

It's about a firm using a brand's ability to influence social behavior.

No firm should wade into a controversy just to again visibility, the USMP lecturer goes on to say. The question, rather, is if doing so is consistent with a brand's organizational culture and projected values.

Company heads, like brands, can also become involved by announcing certain measures. But should executives state opinions publicly? Kleeberg says it's alright to engage in this way, but again, only after taking the time to properly listen and consider the situation.

"It is important to understand what the CEO's role," she says. "The message must be sincere and cautious and coherent with the organization ... That's because brands and organizations rest on human foundations and values."

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