How amplified consumer voices are changing the role of brands

Thanks to the ease of organizing, consumers are protesting brands with the very same force they use to protest social issues, says Droga5's chief intelligence officer.

Throughout history, people have rallied together to have their voice heard. There is intense power in having a mass of people create a singular voice. Time and again we have seen protests drive change: Gandhi’s Salt March, protests against the Vietnam War, the American Civil Rights Movement, the Women’s March in January and more. The list is extensive. So it should be no surprise that social media is the current-day platform for this. 

Social platforms allow large numbers of people to assemble quickly—and globally. These platforms create a force of unity in the same way that earlier protests did, and though there is not always a physical presence, the messages are equally loud. 

The scary part is—thanks to the ease of organizing in gathering— consumers are protesting brands with the very same force they use to protest social issues. Today’s consumers are able to come together quickly to ban a brand that doesn’t behave in a manner they like. For a brand, that means you have to both walk the walk and talk the talk, because nothing is getting past consumers anymore. 

Take Uber, for example. In January, the company turned off surge pricing during a large-scale taxi union strike meant to protest Trump’s travel ban. As a result of their attempt to turn a profit during the strike, the brand was hit with a boycott that went viral. A month later, their CEO was accused of sexual harassment by a former employee. Protests and boycotts against the company ensued, ultimately leading to the CEO’s forced resignation. Consumers used social media to encourage a boycott, and then followed through, hurting the brand’s credibility and profitability.

With a spot that consumers felt trivialized political unrest, Pepsi also faltered earlier this year. According to Netbase calculations, immediate consumer backlash against the Kendall Jenner spot drove a 20-fold increase in social impressions, largely negative. As a result, Pepsi was forced to pull the spot and apologize for their insensitivity. 

Though the two brands had very different issues, the consumer’s reaction was the same: to spread the word and try to bring the company to their knees. Change is a powerful ask. And both companies were forced to oblige.

The power that now sits in communities changes the way we have to think as brands. This puts a tremendous amount of pressure on the work we put out into the world. It means knowing the consumer isn’t just about understanding their interests and media consumption, but we have to relate to them culturally as well. In today’s volatile political and social atmosphere, brands have to be vigilant, walking the line between supporting an issue and taking advantage of an issue. Brands have to align with causes that are essential to their purpose to make sure they are viewed as relevant. 

What does this mean? It means that real-time data is more important than ever. With access to so much information about how consumers are thinking, feeling and behaving, we can better align ourselves with values our consumers care about and find ways to use this massively amplified voice for good. For good in the world, and for a brand’s bottom line.

Amy Avery is Chief Intelligence Officer at Droga5.