Why do brands take a stand on social issues?

A new exhibition at the Museum of Brands explores when brands have adopted social issues – and opens the ensuing complexity up for debate.

“There’s almost a pressure from the general public to investigate a brand’s purpose with an honest approach,” Chris Griffin tells Design Week. “Consumers leap onto a brand where an issue doesn’t necessarily fit, or is inappropriate. And the positive consumers come through and support it. It’s pretty polarising stuff out there.”

Chris Griffin is CEO of Museum of Brands, whose new exhibition, When Brands Take a Stand, explores what happens when brands “take a stand on societal and political issues”.

Like a Girl campaign, from Always

The exhibition will look at a range of media, including TV adverts, posters and packaging. While all the brands have had an appearance in the UK, most of them are American (“Sadly the list of pure British brands is quite small now,” Griffin says.) The campaigns are also relatively recent, so they will likely be in most visitors’ memory. For wider context on branding, the museum has a ‘time tunnel’ — separate from the exhibition — which explores branding from 2000 years ago.

The featured brands cover a range of social issues. In 2014, Tampon brand Always attempted to reclaim the phrase ‘like a girl’ from a way to humiliate women to empowering them. And another sanitary brand, Bodyform ran a campaign called Blood Normal, which aimed to normalise periods and the stigma around them, such as bleeding.

Bodyform’s Blood Normal campaign

There is also product design in the exhibition, including Pride-focused packaging from Skittles which erased the confectionery’s rainbow colours so that designers from the LGBTQ+ community could illustrate them, creating four special edition versions of the packaging last year.

Cadbury also turned to packaging to make a statement, this time around dementia, working with charity Age UK. The chocolate company removed all the words from its branding to encourage people to ‘donate their words’, by talking to older people, or calling an older relative and checking in with an older neighbour.

The reasons why a brand might take a stand are various. While it can bring awareness to an issue, it could also be viewed more cynically as a marketing technique to target a new audience or simply make headlines.

It can also be all these things at once. Griffin says that the exhibition presents the content as a “debate”. “It can be good, it can be bad, sometimes it’s helping, sometimes it’s not,” he says. “In reality it’s all these things.” Neither is it new; Griffin adds that food company Bovril promoted the war effort, and Coca-Cola was not “just a black fizzy drink” in the 1960s, but was “teaching the world to sing about peace and harmony” in its famous hilltop advertisement.

A “complex relationship”

Clothing company Jigsaw’s celebration of immigration

The exhibition also highlights the “complex relationship” between brands and society. Do brands adopt social issues for their own advantage, or do they highlight issues that need to be talked about? Again, it seems that it could be both, and it will likely differ on a case-to-case basis. While explaining that some brands have picked up issues “that are not everywhere in society”, he doesn’t think brands “are doing their own investigations”. “I think they’re hearing society, and giving them a vehicle or prompt,” Griffin adds. “They’re spending millions on advertising, and sometimes adding LGBTQ to it is a hell of a gift to the movement.”

Gilette’s The Best a Man Can Be

Brands don’t have to do this, of course. So why do they? Campaigns are costly, modern audiences have access to Twitter and outrage; the risks are huge. Nike’s Dream Crazy campaign sparked said Twitter outrage. People boycotted the sports brand; they burned their shoes. But sales didn’t fall, and the company’s stock price raised by 5% in the weeks after the advert. The following year, the advert won a Creative Arts Emmy for outstanding commercial.

That “loop” as Griffin calls it is present in a lot of these brand campaigns. Gillette’s The Best a Man Can Be, for example “kicks off with it being a negative, but in a fairly short period of time it became a distinct positive”.

How far does a campaign go?

Closing the Dream Gap, from BArbie

While these campaigns are not exactly rebrands, they seem to go further than campaigns. Nike is now known for its brand positioning. It has aligned itself with Colin Kaepernick, the American football player who started to kneel when the national anthem was played before matches as he believed the song, and the American flag, represents national identity that “oppresses black people and people of colour”. After the advert featuring Kaepernick, President Trump tweeted: “Nike is getting absolutely killed with anger and boycotts. I wonder if they had any idea it would be this way?”

Politics enters the world of brands in different ways. Iceland’s 2019 Christmas advert, which features a cartoon Orangutan, rallied against products that use palm oil — the production of which it said leads to the deforestation in areas where the animal lives. The advert was banned by advertising regulator Clearcast because the it was originally made by environmental organisation Greenpeace, and “an advertisement contravenes the prohibition on political advertising if it is: an advertisement which is inserted by or on behalf of a body whose objects are wholly or mainly of a political nature.”

Iceland’s Christmas advert against the use of palm oil

Banning something also created hundreds of headlines for the supermarket chain. Could Iceland have known that the advert would be banned because of its political leaning? It likely hoped that the animal cartoon — voiced by Emma Thompson — would capture the public’s attention. Griffin says that the way brands use animal mascots — like Tripadvisor’s owl — could be a topic for a future exhibition.

That these brands can create headlines by commenting on issues – whether it’s periods, LGBTQ issues, or the environment – suggests that society might not be as open-minded as it thinks it is. By presenting it “neutrally”, Griffin says that it will be interesting to see how visitors engage with the work on display. “We’ll be seeing what reaction it gets,” he says.

For others, it might simply be a wake-up call. “Some consumers don’t necessarily clock the issue that’s being promoted.”

When Brands Take a Stand is runs from 10 March – 31 October 2020 at the Museum of Brands, 111-117 Lancaster Road, London W11 1QT. Tickets start at £5. A series of talks and events is accompanying the exhibition; for more details check the website.

Hide Comments (1)Show Comments (1)
  • michelle desilets March 5, 2020 at 11:50 am

    It is regrettable that Iceland would use the Rang-tan video (which was made for Greenpeace) to promote a boycott of palm oil when Greenpeace, as members of Palm Oil Innovation Group, categorically do not support a boycott of palm oil.
    We at Orangutan Land Trust encourage Iceland to become part of the solution and commit to sourcing only sustainable, deforestation-free palm oil.
    #ChooseSustainable #PalmOil and #SaveOrangutans

  • Post a comment

Latest articles