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Neutral is no longer a Position: Brand Messaging and Advocacy in Times of Crisis

Updated: Aug 23, 2023

Marketing during the Apocalypse.

Getting brand messaging right has never been more important or more difficult. Advocating for issues is an expectation but do it wrong and the brand runs the risk of looking exploitative.

You may have noticed that trying to convince people to buy dinner out, much less a new pair of pants, is a bit tricky right now. The world is in crisis, and the cataclysmic consequences most industries are facing haven’t even struck yet. Consumers are pulling back on all but necessary expenses and are looking for quality, emotional connection. Marketing in what seems like the apocalypse may feel draining, cause anxiety, be trigger-y, and even seem life-threatening if messages aren't being received as expected. On top of it all, your audience seems just afraid of you as you are of them right now. If you make a bad move, you face consumers who feel betrayed, disillusioned, and in some cases even hostile to your perceived ignorance or disinterest.

What Happens Online Does Not Stay Online.

Knowing what to say starts with listening. The reality is that everything happens on social media before it happens in real life and keeping up to date on these platforms is essential. Don’t just leave it to the bots - do your own hashtag searches to see what comes up, read comments sections and Stories to explore all sides of an issue, and do frequent trend research to help stay in tune with the current social climate. Pay close attention to your critics and collaborate with community leaders on and offline to become an ally for the issues at hand. If the press is reporting the criticism, respond to the reporters quickly. Silence speaks volumes. Fact check information with professional writers, not just managers, and control the narrative by remaining professional and human. Communicate plans of action to reporters that integrate suggestions from your audience. Humility and action go a long way. Keep personal relationships warm in countries wherever the brand has a presence to help understand from the ground level what is really happening. Flex those contacts to educate yourself. While many brands have already implemented diversity training and made statements in support of equality and justice, in 2020 that does not go far enough. The playbooks of the past are not going to work. During heightened times of socio-political crisis people want specifics, empathy, and action.

Suggested Playbook for Brand Messaging:

  1. Call out the issue to make their audience feel heard. Name it. Say what’s going on and what it means.

  2. State clearly the brands side of the issue Don’t be shy. Be specific so they know where you stand. If you’re on everybody’s side you’re on nobody’s side.

  3. Follow up declarations with action Make it count. Big gestures are appreciated. Glossier was praised for their 500k donation and the quickness of their response but action can come in many forms.

Arm Yourself with Your Brand Values.

Economists predict that luxury will be one of the hardest sectors hit, and the slowest to recover. Those that want to survive need to arm themselves with more than a quality product or service, they need perspective. Unemployment is high everywhere and the wealth gap has almost choked out the middle class. The more the middle class disappears, so does your neutrality. Brands need to take a side on an issue that is important not only to the demographic but to the core of what the brand itself represents. Be a refuge for your customers with your values. Let consumers know without a doubt that you are there to serve them on a human level by doing what you do best. In doing so, the brand must recognize itself not as an individual but as a channel to raise up the voice of the collective for a new aligned way of doing business.

Be a refuge for your customers with your values. Let consumers know without a doubt that you are there to serve them on a human level by doing what you do best.

Only Authentic Sources.

To be an effective platform, it is essential to educate from within. Brands must inform themselves on all sides of the issues they stand for and retain authentic sources to make sure messages and concepts are sincere and delivered as intended, including professional native-tongue copywriters when geo-targeting.

It’s true that commerce must continue but words are important. Phrasing is important. Images are important. Knowing your audience is crucial and there’s no doubt that data-based planning is by now, expected of us in a sector ruled by AI and algorithms. But instead of consulting data points, in this case it would befit marketers to insist on direct sources to help them shape the brand’s messaging as events develop. This instills trust in consumers who see the brand as a long-term ally rather than exploitative during times of crisis. Authentic sources help brands to stay ahead of the curve on social issues that may escalate, allowing time to prepare for inevitable spikes and drops in the market and in consumer sentiment.

In a recent incident that escaped the media, Pier Paolo Piccoli, Creative Director of Dior published a photo on his account at the height of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, of two black models, Akiima and Nyarach with the caption: “I can’t breath,” referring to the recent murder of George Floyd by a police officer. Without any other explanation it was an odd choice of photo with the caption. It’s hard to find a connection between a photo with two black models in couture gowns with the recent murder of a black man, and the backlash at system racism. The post was immediately noticed by a seasoned black designer in Milan who reposted the image on Facebook which was quickly met with other negative remarks. Within minutes, Mr. Piccoli realized the confusion and changed it quickly.

While the intentions were in the right place and Mr. Piccoli is known for his inclusion, the messiness could’ve been avoided with a quick check by a black, native English speaker. The gaffe was not made on the brand’s social accounts, but as the current creative director of Dior, his influence goes beyond the brands name and is therefore also responsible to use his platform as a channel that is in alignment with the brands values. This includes adhering to the same process of checking sources and cross-checking sensitive foreign language posts with native speakers.

Alternatively, there is a risk of looking or actually being exploitive without knowing it, making your ignorance public as was with another recent case involving French fashion personality, Carine Roitfeld, blasted on Diet Prada for her Instagram post showing a photo of herself with a black model and the caption "Anok is not a black woman, she is my friend."

While it can be argued that English is not her first language, the problem here isn't the grammar, but actually the concept of erasing someone's identity to make them acceptable as a friend or that somehow there's something inherently wrong with "blackness." Again, this is a situation that could have been avoided by consulting with an authentic source who is actually represented by the movement and a mother-tongue copywriter.(I need a copywriter).

How to be the voice of the people and keep your own.

Contrary to the popular (albeit, outdated) belief that luxury brands shouldn’t involve themselves in political squabbles, they are political in nature and always have been. The narratives told by the luxury sector are like a mirror, reflecting the current state of affairs in the world. It’s how luxury brands relate to these issues that has changed. As consumers have more transparency than ever, exclusivity must now include inclusivity. This means, the more consumers know about your potential, the more they expect you to contribute to the collective. Exclusivity can be maintained along service and price points but a brand’s success in times of crisis relies on how involved they are [with all of their economic and social power], in solving the collective issues plaguing their consumers, like environmental and socio-political matters.

Choosing sides does not ruin your brand’s aesthetic, it informs it. Remind consumers of what you do, and how by existing, you enrich and validate their experience rather than take them away from it. Luxury is aspirational and can be so without creating controversy. While in the past brands have sought to transport people away from reality with fantasy, excess, and unreachable beauty, the goal now is to ground people and direct. Luxury brands should use their transportative production and storytelling talents to distribute empathy and propose solutions, helping consumers live realities that exist on a universal level that may not have been a part of their world. Someone doesn’t have to eat in your restaurant or walk in your shoes to know that you’re there for them for them too.


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