In the “Post-Truth” Society, Future Proofing Your Brand Is Not Optional

Every day, more and more brands are quickly pulled into current events, from Carrier to Ford, to even the beloved brand Apple, that affect both public perception and the bottom line.   

For example, Tic-Tac was recently cast as an unwilling accomplice in a political scandal more unpleasant than chronic halitosis. Massive public outcry forced Kellogg’s to yank advertising dollars from ultra-right-wing website Breitbart. Despite the best efforts of their PR machine, Uber is still scrambling to quell a mass exodus of customers who deleted their accounts because of their CEO’s relationship to President Trump.

In such a politically-charged climate, even the most apolitical brands have the lingering threat of being flung into extremely polarizing controversies. Now more than ever, brands need to proactively own what they stand for, before the public decides for them.

Long gone are the days when Coca-Cola assembled a group of young people from all over the world in 1971 to realize a vision of world peace and prosperity with lyrics like, “I'd like to buy the world a home and furnish it with love.” However, there may be an important lesson in the hopeful (if not naïve) television spot that struck a major chord during a period marred by division and turmoil—not unlike today.  

Successfully navigating the next few years will require that your brand is adequately prepared for crisis communications. Negative headlines and social media backlash can and do spiral out-of-control within hours. A proactive step in protecting your brand is to future-proof through advocacy. Get a deep understanding of your brand’s values and champion causes that your consumers care deeply about, and they will wave your brand’s flag in good times and bad. It’s exciting to think about the untapped advocacy potential after seeing see the brands that are already doing it well.

Refusing to be boxed in, Doritos did a masterful job of taking their brand promise of boldness beyond the chip bag into the realm of social issues. The brand took a recent stand in solidarity with the LGBTQ community by offering bags of limited edition Rainbow Doritos to those who made a $10 donation to the It Gets Better project. Leading with the message, “There’s nothing bolder than being yourself,” parent PepsiCo sent shockwaves through the industry for using one of their most popular mass brands as a vehicle to support a cause that for all its popularity, is still polarizing. The campaign earned the brand countless impressions through press coverage and the social media hashtag #BoldandBetter, in which supporters showcased their Rainbow Doritos and offered messages of inspiration and kindness.

Patagonia has also garnered headlines for particular initiatives including: their leadership of a $35 million fund for nationwide rooftop solar panel installation, their campaign to get out the green vote and closing on Election Day, and donating their $10 million Black Friday revenue to environmental causes. Less than a few weeks into 2017, they are out in full force to push back against Utah lawmakers in their quest to rescind former President Obama’s designation of Bears Ears National Monument in southern Utah. Such prolific and visible activism makes the company a boon to their conscious consumers and provides them justification for shelling out a few extra dollars for the higher-end brand.

Embracing advocacy and taking on social issues that transcend politics and party lines is no longer exclusively the domain of smaller brands with an appetite for risk. While some mainstream skincare brands like Dove have made measured pushes toward inclusivity, most have skirted issues specifically around race. But these brands that typically project healing and confidence through skin, are precisely the brands that should be taking a meaningful stand for causes of racial justice. Undoubtedly, consumers would flock to a brand that made the fight for equality a true tent pole commitment.

While the bright-eyed idealism of “buying the world a Coke and keeping it company” is an important touchstone, we need more revolutionary spirits putting their money where their mouths are. For mainstream brands, future proofing is no longer a nice-to-have. The future is already here, whether we like it or not.

Derek J. Horn
Designer, Beardwood&Co.

Derek Horn is a designer at Beardwood&Co, a branding agency in New York City, and programming director for the Out for Undergrad Marketing Conference, an organization that helps LGBTQ undergraduate students reach their full potential after graduation. Derek brings a sharp eye and tenaciously positive attitude to tackling creative problems for brands such as Colgate, S'well, and Honest Tea. When not at work, Derek is most likely at a concert, protesting, or eating his way through NYC.