Rachel Teh, Victoria Strategy Director, UM
Melbournians have been in lockdown for almost 250 days.
Living in the world’s most locked down city, I have become highly sensitive to vaccination rhetoric. From anti-lockdown protests to mandated construction closures, people are frustrated with the contradicting health advice and the media’s role in perpetuating this social discourse. Unlike previous initiatives like #MeToo or #MarriageEquality, we are operating in this ‘pressure cooker’ environment of isolation. It begs the question: what role do brands have and do they have the right to play in this narrative?
Research from Junkee and oOh! Media found that 75% of Gen Z and Millennials agree one of the most important aspects of a brand is supporting a cause they believe in. However, a recent Deloitte AU study shows just under half of Millennials (48%) and Gen Z’s (47%) think businesses have a positive impact on society.
Collectively they represent just over 40% of the Australian population, however it would be remiss of me to assume an entire generation feel the same way. But as we’ve seen in recent years, ‘cancel culture’ has permeated social media, with a vocal young minority willing to place organisations and individuals on trial for putting a foot wrong – and they have the power to stunt or strengthen your brand.
A few days ago, I saw an ad that changed a single letter in their logo to the word JAB. I couldn’t help but think that it was a lazy attempt to capitalise on the vaccination hype, rather than assisting in the conversation. But is this an effective endorsement strategy?
We know from Professor Karen Nelson-Field that 50% of time-on-screen has no attention paid at all. So when a consumer is exposed to your ad, they have a split second to take in your message and form an immediate opinion based on the memory structures you’ve built for your brand narrative.
Take Pepsi, the brand was heavily scrutinised for it’s "woke-washing" attempts to capitalise on the #BLM movement. It was a distasteful attempt at trying to be part of the trending conversation. Prior to the negative backlash, Pepsi experienced a 4% drop to its brand value, with Brand Finance stating the Kendal Jenner controversy “could create further losses in the value and strength of its brand”.
To earn the right to play, brands need to do so authentically. Ask yourself, does your brand purpose align and do your brand values reflect this? Brands that have built long standing equity in social and cultural conversation will be perceived as authentic. This is not a time for the ‘bandwagon effect’, even companies who have built social equity will have to tread lightly. Younger audiences have an effective BS radar and are not afraid to call brands out.
CUB’s recent campaign To The Pub made an indelible impression on me. It’s a true celebration of the glory days prior to pandemic. It highlights the importance of heroing local on-premise partners and is sensitive to the irreversible effects on the hospitality industry – with some of Australia’s most iconic pubs never to be seen again. An authentic example of using fame to fuel, rather than fame to fail. And not one mention of a vaccine.
Vaccinations have divided our nation. Every week we become witnesses to the increasing number of violent anti-vaxxer protests. Believe it or not, this group make up a portion of your brand’s customer base. And just because we are offended, does not make us right. We preach diversity and inclusion for our LGBTQIA+ communities, promote cultural inclusion for Indigenous and multicultural groups, yet some think it’s ok to aggressively isolate this minority.
But where does it stop? As marketers we need to navigate this delicate balance with great care to ensure brands are not isolating those who desire but are unable to get a vaccination, whether it be for medical or cultural reasons.
It is our responsibility as agencies and marketers to be socially aware and put the wider public’s concern before our own agendas. We must help navigate these uncertain times with brave, honest and empathic counsel. Beware of alienating a percentage of your customer base, because the backlash may be more damaging to your brand image than you expect. Regardless of your intent, anyone can get this wrong in this unforgiving time.