Five Tips for Brands Navigating Today’s Highly-Charged Climate

HawkPartners recently held a Chief Marketing Officer panel discussion in Washington, D.C. focused on how brands should be prepared to navigate an era in which customers are not only more likely to support brands that align with their values and beliefs, but also disengage with–or worse–publicly shun brands that don’t.  Our panelists, Author/CMO Peter Horst, Hilton CMO Kellyn Smith Kenny, and HawkPartners Co-Founder Rob Duboff shared a few key thoughts on how brands need to act and, at a minimum, be prepared to react.   Some key takeaways include:

1. Make sure Marketing and PR teams are well aligned

In the era of a 24-hour news cycle and social media that enables the spread of news like wildfire, PR teams are often in constant crisis mode.  A collaborative relationship between Marketing and PR will allow for proactive and reactive communication grounded in well-understood brand values.

2. Walk the walk before talking the talk

There are many brands that publicly espouse values that they themselves don’t live by, such as gender equality despite having a poor record of equal pay, or promotion of clean air amidst environmental abuses.   At the risk of alienating lipstick-wearing pigs, several brands have found themselves in the hot seat when they couldn’t back up their claims.   Today’s customers tend to be more distrustful and on the lookout for hypocrisy.

3. Engage employees

Remind employees often about the values and purpose of the brand and let them know first before public announcements are made. They can and should be allies. Beyond that, marketing leaders should keep a pulse on what issues employees are most passionate about. If a brand is pressured to engage on a social or political issue, it can then quickly weigh the pros/cons of potential responses with the impact on employee morale; furthermore, brands may be expected to respond to issues of importance to those representing them on the front lines.

4. Know where you have “permission to play”

Marketing leaders need to keep their core products and services in mind. In what realm customers think of your brand dictates what you credibly can or cannot do when it comes to engagement with issues. Pepsi received swift backlash for its Kendall Jenner ad, in which the model was depicted crossing through protesters to hand police officers a Pepsi. Well-intentioned though it may have been, the ad led to criticism that Pepsi had incongruently inserted itself in a national dialogue around race relations without history of supporting social justice causes; further, the perceived disconnect between carbonated beverages and the Black Lives Matter movement had a negative impact on the credibility of the brand.

5. Use insights to know your tribe (or tribes) and their hot button issues.

Marketing leaders need to remember that they are not their customers; insights are needed to intimately and proactively understand who their customers are and what issues are/are not important to them. With this deep understanding, brands can more easily navigate a new era where engagement with customers is constant and multi-channeled, and where the news cycle allows little time for reaction.

Reach out to Abigail Ahearn and Alexandra Compare to learn more about branding in today’s climate.