When sparks fly: A story on reputation, trust, and responsibility, Part 2

6 September 2023

"If you, as a brand or company, are taking a stance on cultural issues, who and what are you trying to influence?"

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when sparks fly a story on reputation trust and responsibility 2

Article series

When sparks fly: A story on reputation, trust, and responsibility

In part 1, we discussed a brand’s reputation, its influence and public opinion with society’s low trust in societal institutions. Now, how do we manage that and navigate the ever-polarising world?

The tricky bit

But, as we have seen with Thunberg and Tate, the potential to influence is big, the potential to (mis)use trust is major, and this, in turn, comes with a huge responsibility.

If you, as a brand or company, are taking a stance on cultural issues, who and what are you trying to influence? Do you even know what the reach and risk of the influence is? How are you sending the right message? And even more importantly, how are you following through on your promises?

It is a topic that occupies the mind space of many a Brand Manager. Particularly because the reaction of ‘the public’ is merciless and can reach huge proportions in no time. We only need to think about the Pepsi ad in 2017, which featured Kendall Jenner and, more recently, the Bud Light collaboration with Dylan Mulvaney, to understand the scale of public backlashes…

The 2017 Pepsi ad, which featured Kendall Jenner, was an attempt to reach out to millennials, trying to project a global message of unity, peace and understanding. But, following intense social media criticism, the ad was pulled. A spokesperson declared, ‘Clearly, we missed the mark, and we apologise’. What was the controversy? Both Pepsi and Jenner were accused of trivialising Black Lives Matter and police brutality. The ad was widely seen as an example of “cause marketing” gone wrong. (Source: CNBC)

A more recent example is that of Bud Light. Across the US, Bud Light sales have plummeted since April after a furious conservative backlash to the brand’s collaboration with transgender TikTok personality Dylan Mulvaney. Kid Rock, the rap-rock star, filmed himself shooting cases of the beer. Ron DeSantis, the Republican presidential contender, told customers at the bar of a Veterans of Foreign Wars post in Nevada he would “serve them anything — except Bud Light. I can’t do that.” 

On 10 August 2023, parent company Anheuser-Busch InBev revealed the financial toll: the Belgium-based group said its US revenues had fallen by 10.5 per cent in the second quarter. (Source: FT)

There are also examples of ‘taking a stance’ that have had positive societal and business impacts:

Nike's collaboration with Colin Kaepernick is a prominent example of a brand aligning itself with a social and cultural issue. In 2018, Nike unveiled an advertising campaign featuring Colin Kaepernick, a former NFL player known for his protests against racial injustice by kneeling during the national anthem before games. This collaboration generated significant attention and discussions. Despite initial speculation that the campaign might negatively impact Nike's sales, the company reported an increase in sales following the campaign's launch. The campaign resonated with many of Nike's target consumers, who appreciated the brand's stance on social issues. (Source: The Guardian) 

In 2016, Heineken-owned Tecate beer took a purposeful approach in Mexico that was both commercially and societally effective. It implored Mexicans not to buy its brand if they were violent against women. In its campaign to end violence against women, the brand used its reputation as a 'man's beer' to speak out against domestic abuse. The stance Cerveza Tecate takes demonstrates how a company can use its influence for social good. (Source: WARC) 

Very powerful examples illustrate the impact (both intended and unintended) that ‘taking a stance’ or ‘purpose’ can have. So, how can you effectively manage brand reputation and ensure that your words and actions yield both a positive societal impact and a positive business impact? 

Managing brand reputation

Brand reputation management has evolved from a reactive approach to a proactive and ongoing effort. It's no longer just about mitigating damage; it's about building and maintaining a strong, positive reputation that aligns with the values and expectations of modern consumers. This means that there’s a lot for brands to consider:

  • First, there still is that reactive element of brand reputation management; there are unanticipated events that can potentially bring major blows to a brand’s reputation

  • Second, there is a growing demand for brands to actively engage in societal matters

  • And third, we saw that the very act of taking a position can elicit powerful responses from the public; it can either generate polarised reactions (think of the Bud Light example) and/or be dismissed as greenwashing or rainbow washing

And with respect to the last point, we all need to be aware of the complexities that come with greater responsibility in an increasingly polarised world.

Navigating a polarised world

As the most trusted institution, there is an expectation of businesses to leverage comparative advantage to inform debate and deliver solutions across climate, diversity and inclusion. This marks a significant change in the role of brands. As Manfredi Ricca from Interbrand puts it very clearly, “Brands need to create a functional connection with their audiences, they need to create an emotional connection, but also increasingly they need to create a moral connection.”

The figures couldn’t be clearer:

when sparks fly a story on reputation trust and responsibility info 2

So, whilst we should continue to put our efforts into closing the inner and outer loop with our customers, should we also start looking at a third loop beyond that: the moral loop? The moral loop starts with listening to what society is saying, engages with social issues and ultimately strengthens the social fabric. Is that a responsibility businesses have to take to avoid further polarisation?

The more cynical part of me does wonder: Can a business avoid being political (and therefore stimulate polarisation) when it addresses contentious societal issues?  It is something to keep considering.

But… most of all, I am optimistic and excited about the role that brands can play and am hopeful that humanity and empathy will prevail in these efforts. And we – as a research industry – have the most privileged position to listen. Let’s use that privilege wisely and hold each other accountable for what we do with what we hear. 

In my presentation at Congress, I will talk more about this - including how Customer Insight informs our Brand Strategy at Philips.

But in the run-up to this, I would love to hear your thoughts on the above considerations…

Anneke Quinn-de Jong
Head of Brand & Experience Insight at Philips

Article series

When sparks fly: A story on reputation, trust, and responsibility