When brands take a stand… and a risk

—Bernbach said ‘A principle isn’t a principle until it costs you something.’ But what about when a principled stand evokes an angry mob, asks Éric Blais—

Brands have become increasingly vocal about their position on cultural and societal issues at the same time public opinion has become increasingly polarized. Those taking a stand are taking a risk. And the recent controversy involving Hershey is a good reminder that those risks can have unintended consequences, including online threats of violence.

It’s a catch-22: brands adopting potentially controversial positions on social issues as part of their brand-building efforts are doing important, courageous work in the eyes of some, while also exposing themselves to boycotts and threats from others with strong opposing views and the means to mobilize. Is it worth the risk?

Timed for International Women’s Day, Hershey Canada’s #HERforSHE campaign features five women who are activists in their fields, talking about themselves and their work in a series of videos. The campaign also includes limited-edition chocolate bars with special packaging featuring each woman: Kélicia Massala and Rita Audi, who focus on gender equality; Naila Moloo, a climate tech researcher; Autumn Peltier, an indigenous rights and water activist; and Fae Johnstone, a trans woman and leading Canadian advocate for transgender rights.

The decision to include a trans woman in the campaign led to it getting far more attention in the U.S.—where a different campaign is running—than in Canada (see The Message story here).

Fox News’ Tucker Carlson told his viewers that the inclusion of Johnstone was proof of  “a well-funded effort to erase women.” He was conflating the story of the Ontario teacher who wore giant prosthetic breasts in class. Like or dislike him, Carlson, and others like him, have the power to stir up massive amounts of ill-will and anger, which was the case with Hershey.

That probably wasn’t the plan, but it is tempting to ask: “Didn’t they see this coming?” Were they prepared for the possible backlash in the U.S., where the brand is iconic, and for its ripple effect in Canada? Based on the carefully worded statement on social media, my first assumption was they were not expecting it.

Johnstone told the CBC last week that they did do “some prep work” in case there was negative coverage. “There was a worry that there would be some unpleasantness around this,” she said, but added, “None of us were prepared for this.”

I have no doubt that the team at Hershey Canada felt this was an important conversation to have with Canadians. One that could be had in a civil and constructive manner.

After all, not that long ago, marketers were giddy at the idea that social media provided brands with a platform to engage in authentic conversations with consumers. But we’ve come to a point where the conversations are often nasty, with one side winning only when the other side has no choice but to shut up. By then, the damage is usually done.

So was the resulting furor just the voices of a noisy few, or something that could actually cause lasting damage to the chocolate-maker’s reputation? Only time will tell. But there are lessons to be learned.

The all-important PESTLE analysis

Most marketers conduct some form of environmental analysis prior to developing strategies and programs. This usually includes market research and a SWOT analysis. However, that’s insufficient when brands choose to insert themselves in conversations about social causes and issues. Brands must also conduct a PESTLE analysis: political, economic, social, technological, legal and environment.

In other words, brands need to understand how their consumer programs will be understood by engaged citizens and interest groups with strong opinions and the means to express them, unfiltered, to large audiences.

A PESTLE analysis that included the U.S. would likely have found Tennessee Governor Bill Lee was about to sign legislation banning gender-affirming care for transgender youth and limiting drag shows. Or that the Governor of Mississippi signed similar legislation, and other bills like this had passed this year in Utah and South Dakota.

Based on that analysis, it might have been predictable that celebrating a transgender woman in an advertising campaign would stir up the anti-trans forces.

But Hershey Canada may well have decided to proceed, believing that the upside of valuing togetherness and diversity far outweighs the downside of a public backlash in the U.S. that would spill into Canada.

Letting things blow over

Crisis public relations experts sometimes advise staying quiet and letting things blow over. This is perhaps the advice Hershey Canada received, which would explain its decision to publish a statement on its social media and then go silent.

While this might bring the temperature down, it also lets those who have attacked you believe they have the power to shut you up.

The reaction to this campaign reminded me of the backlash Simons faced late last year for its “All is Beauty” ad about a terminally ill woman who chose to end her life with medical assistance. The ad agency told The Message the campaign was never meant to be a political lightning-rod, but had been co-opted by those with political agendas. “And unfortunately, in this day and age, that can lead to some concerns, and you have to take those concerns pretty seriously.”

In other words, those who disagree with your brand’s public stand will threaten you. That’s not a threat we typically see listed in an analysis of strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats.

If brands want to truly engage in conversations about important societal debates, they should be prepared to roll with the punches. As legendary adman Bill Bernbach said: A principle isn’t a principle until it costs you something. That may be true if the costs are purely commercial. In this case, Hershey’s went mostly silent but had the courage to keep the content online despite the calls for a boycott ahead of the critical Easter period.

But what if the costs involve the safety of people working with the brand? That’s impossible to answer. There are no “best practices” for that dilemma. Should brands be committed to stay the course—for a cause they may truly believe in and support—no matter what? That’s what countless courageous activists do around the world at great personal risk.

Still, I ask if that’s a role brands should play, particularly when it’s part of their commercial efforts. Brand owners could do as much good by supporting causes aligned with their values in ways that are less visible and commercial. By quietly funding organizations that do the work required to bring change and have a real impact. Doing so might not benefit the brand, but it would benefit society.

Éric Blais is president of Headspace Marketing, a consultancy that helps marketers build brands in Quebec. He can be reached at feedback@headspacemarketing.com

Eric Blais