Mars, Incorporated brand M&M’s published a press release announcing that the brand now has a commitment to inclusion and global belonging. As another mass brand taking steps to evolve their brand purpose away from the product and toward societal benefits, perhaps it is time to pause and reflect on the need for brands to be more virtuous and then publicize such virtue. When the Washington Post makes fun of such a move and satire pops up within hours to highlight the absurdity, it is time to ponder what marketers are doing, and more importantly, why and for whom.
Inspired by emails I received after this announcement, below are five questions CEOs should start asking their CMOs. Better yet, these are questions CMOs can ask of themselves and their marketing teams. One caveat. I am assuming that CEOs hire CMOs to be the chief advocate for consumers, to build brands, and to strengthen the business in the short and long term. If this is not the case—and a CEO has chosen to hire a CMO to address other issues without regard to consumers, the firm’s brand(s), or the business—then the below questions are irrelevant.
1. Why are you making this shift? What is wrong with the current stated purpose that is driving this change? Is it somehow limiting, deficient, or harming the brand? Is it holding the brand back from achieving its potential? And what evidence, beyond conjecture, do you have that supports this belief?
2. How does this shift reflect deeper understanding of the breadth of consumers? As the one leader who is tasked with championing the consumer, how does this shift reflect some evolved understanding of consumers? What evidence is there that this shift will fortify the brand-consumer relationship ? Or is this an untested hypothesis?
Understand that an untested hypothesis can create a significant blind spot. It can enable marketers to emphasize a point of view which they personally agree with and inadvertently ignore other relevant views.
MORE FOR YOU
3. How have you separated your own needs, wants, and desires from that of the needs of consumers, the brand and business?
A growing issue I’m hearing from executives is the need some marketers have to ensure that brands align with their own beliefs, values, desires, and needs. The problem executives express is that this is not what marketers are hired to do. They are being paid to strengthen brands and businesses—not align them with their own values or worse, push their own beliefs onto consumers and the brand. Marketers are uniquely hired to understand and empathize with all consumers, bringing this insight into the company to create decisions that build brands and businesses. When a marketer believes, instead, that their role is to shift the brand to comport with their own world views, they have failed to live up to the expectations of their job.
I share an example of what this looks like from a confidential discussion I had. The company is a large consumer packaged goods firm, and the marketing team was discussing a controversial action. Some members were indicating that the action would be polarizing because some consumers did not all agree with the action—it could cause unintended “brand damage”. Others argued that it was the “right” thing to do, that this was the morally appropriate action to take. The senior individual in the meeting ended discussion by saying, paraphrased: “I don’t care if we tick off consumers. I can go to sleep at night knowing that I did the ‘right’ thing”. The question I would ask next, if I had been in the room, is how do you know which position is “right”? According to whom? If individuals in the meeting disagreed — or worse were silenced for fear of speaking out in defense of the perceived “wrong” thing to do (because a senior marketer had signaled that he was certain of the right position)—then who decides what is the “right thing to do”? Why is that senior marketer the arbiter of “right” and “wrong”? Because he had the senior-most chair? Then shouldn’t the CEO decide if that is the criteria?
I have written a case that I use in class discussions to highlight this problem (Coca-Cola’s changing views on the Georgia Voting Reform bill). At first, Coca-Cola was non-committal, drawing ire from liberals and calls for boycotts. So the company shifted positions and adopted the liberal perspective, resulting in calls for boycotts from conservatives. A question I pose to students: “What was the “right” position to hold?”
This question is a bit of a trap, but it is essential to highlight the issue. At an individual level, we each believe that our position is the “right” position. But a marketer — a scientist who seeks to empathize with consumers, create meaningful value for them, and strengthen the brand and business — knows that personal preferences should not drive decision making. One person’s individual view is not generalizable — it does not represent the breadth of: consumers, investors, strategic partners, agencies, suppliers, and so forth. The complex answer, of course, is: “Who defines and decides what is right?” And more broadly: “Why is it important to identify right and wrong, especially when there is not universal agreement?”
In the Coca-Cola case, liberal consumers and employees generally saw the reform bill one way. Conservatives another. Independents a third. And investors look at the action still differently. Recent academic research indicates that corporate sociopolitical activism elicits an “adverse reaction from investors” as it signals a “firm’s allocation of resources away from profit-oriented objectives and toward a risky activity with uncertain outcomes”. Back to the caveat—these questions presume that CEOs have hired CMOs to represent the breadth of consumers effectively and to lead development of strategies and plans that strengthen the brand and business. Some CEOs may have a different role for the CMOs.
4. What are the potential negative consequences of this change? What positioning and brand image impact might the move have?
This ensures that marketers don’t focus solely on the upside without thinking about and considering the downside. Consider the heralded move Nike made to celebrate Colin Kaepernick in addressing social injustice. In the days following Nike’s original campaign, there was significant commentary on how this was a terrific business move, bolstered by three days of one channel sales (web sales up 31% over labor day weekend). However, there was also evidence that this significantly eroded Nike’s brand as favorability dropped among all demographic groups. What was the long-term impact? According to Axios Harris, Nike’s corporate reputation dropped 27 positions from 2018 (ranked #35) to 2020 (ranked #62). Specific ratings on affinity, growth, product/service, citizenship, vision, and culture all dropped more than 25 positions. Further, BAV has specific insight on how Nike’s image has changed among political parties over time. As you can image, it slightly strengthened usage and perception among liberals and significantly negatively impacted usage and perception among conservatives. The message — Nike was a mass brand that convinced consumers it had become a brand that aligned with a specific political party. Nike inadvertently repositioned themselves as a politically aligned brand. How many mass brands want to align with a specific political party? And what is the brand and business consequence?
Despite the plethora of managerial articles calling on brands to take stands, doing so is a cautionary tale. Far more rigorous research is shedding light on the downside. Academic research indicates: “The results from a series of studies, involving both unknown and well-known brands, show that attitudes towards the brand decreased substantially among consumers who disagreed with a brand’s stand, whereas there was no significant effect among consumers who were supportive of the brand’s stand”.
Further, a similar effect happens with employees. Recent academic research finds that there is “an asymmetric treatment effect of taking a stance depending on whether the employee agrees or disagrees with that stance. Namely, (there is) a demotivating effect of taking a stance on a social-political issue with which employees disagree and no statistically significant motivating effect of taking a stance on a social-political issue with which employees agree.”
5. Finally, why are you publicizing and promoting this shift rather than just doing it?
Few people I know love braggards. The term “virtue-signaling” is now perceived as pejorative. And consumers feel the same way about brands. There is something unseemly and suspicious about a brand that wants to promote its virtue. It invites scrutiny and questions. Does the brand live up to its espoused virtue? Is there a “gotcha” moment — where the brand behaved inconsistently with its promoted virtue? And why is the brand promoting its virtue and values rather than just living them? Are they trying to increase sales through promotion of values and virtue?
For some time, I have had private discussions with senior business leaders who see a growing concern. The essence of the worry is that some marketers fail to fulfill essential duties related to: 1) deeply understanding the complexity and breadth of consumers, and 2) recommending strategies and actions that serve consumer needs, the brand, and business—rather than themselves. I have several hypotheses about where this is coming from. I will share one simple hypothesis. If you are inculcated to believe that it is your responsibility—your duty—to speak up and to drive change, then shouldn’t you take it upon yourself to “fix” brands and ensure that they are aligned with your view of what is “right”?
Perhaps it is time for some soul searching about marketers’ purpose. Why do marketers exist? How do marketers fulfill their mission? If I were hiring a marketer, this is the first question I would ask. The second would be: “How do you manage a brand/business and advocate for consumers and other stakeholders when they don’t align with your own beliefs, values, and views?”
Join the Discussion: @KimWhitler