Do brands need to decide which consumers they want to keep?

Yorkshire Tea: brand would prefer anyone with regressive views not to buy its product
Yorkshire Tea: brand would prefer anyone with regressive views not to buy its product

The changing relationship between businesses and society is making it harder for brands to stay silent when faced with consumers with disagreeable views.

On reflection, it’s not really surprising that Yorkshire Tea chose on Twitter last weekend to reject the endorsement of Laura Towler, a nasty individual who publishes videos called things like "White guilt: the mind virus". To the extent that this decision divides the population, Campaign would wager that the large majority of people in the UK, even those of a conservative persuasion, would come down on the side of the Harrogate-based purveyors of cha.

Yorkshire Tea’s plucky Twitter operative isn’t the only businessperson to have disavowed the custom of racists this week: Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos has shared email exchanges with people upset with his support for Black Lives Matter, declaring one of them "the kind of customer I’m happy to lose". If there wasn’t that much at stake for Yorkshire Tea, there is far less for Bezos, who is, if you need reminding, the world’s richest person.

The logical consequence of Yorkshire Tea’s Twitter response, though, would seem to be that the brand would prefer anyone with regressive views not to buy its product. And this raises the question: what would that achieve? There is ample evidence that when consumers boycott a company, it can lead that business to change – but it’s not clear how discouraging people from buying a certain product will have any positive impact on society.

YouGov polling this week, meanwhile, suggests brands should be cautious when wading into these topics – 56% of adults think commercial and retail brands should not take sides on political issues, against only 19% who think they should. 

On the other hand, changes in the media landscape and in business culture in the past decade – not least the emergence of kooky corporate Twitter accounts – have more closely associated brands with the people behind them. Most of us want no truck with people who tolerate racists – so should we expect the same from brands?

Mike Dowuona

Managing director, Crush

You could argue that many mainstream brands decided a long time ago what a "desirable" consumer looked like. The question is: are they ready to actively redefine that idea? Brands should simply be guided by the right thing to do and being on the right side of history. 

If that doesn’t feel right, maybe they can find courage in more familiar territory – commerce. They have a choice to make: attempt to give comfort to an ever-decreasing, ageing consumer base who revel in division by pandering to their unconscious – and sadly, in many cases, conscious – prejudice, or embrace a generation that seeks commonalities and shared experience, hence seeing a massive benefit in the long run.

Yes, it's slightly easier for a Nike, which knows it loses nothing net-net by betting on a community who have delivered them so much equity and commercial support for decades. Less clear-cut for the likes of Yorkshire Tea, which on paper might have more to lose. But when you step back, when it comes to the long game, is there any upside whatsoever in having been the brand that even remotely appeared to be OK with hate, violence, oppression and social injustice? I would hope not.

Andy Nairn

Founding partner, Lucky Generals

I might just be missing the pub, but I’d draw an analogy with the hospitality industry. In that sector, managers are well-used to barring or ejecting customers who are intoxicated, unruly or obnoxious to other guests. Until recently, it’s not been so much of an issue for non-service brands.

But social media now means that we’re all drinking in the same, very public, saloon. So when companies discover they have rude and antagonistic customers showing up on their virtual real estate, they have a choice whether to let them in or kick them out. Like all good pub landlords, they have to use their judgment and allow reasonable freedom of speech – but where that involves racism or any other form of bigotry, they should show them the door. It’s as simple as that. Otherwise, they’ll lose their decent customers and become one of those establishments where nobody wants to hang out.

Rania Robinson

Chief executive and partner, Quiet Storm

There’s something to be said for having fewer deeply loyal consumers instead of many who have little connection to your brand. Having said that, growth in this category doesn’t tend to come from loyal customers buying more often, but rather a combination of a small number of loyal customers and many more people buying occasionally.

So, the question of "who they want to keep" is, to me, less important than who they want to gain. The loss of a few hardcore right-wingers seems like a small sacrifice versus the many more mainstream consumers they’re likely to gain by showing such a positive stance.

Xavier Rees

Chief executive, Havas London and Havas Helia

Consumers are gravitating heavily towards more meaningful brands; brands with a point of view. So it makes good business sense to stand for something, as long as it’s relevant and true to the way the business behaves. Better to mean something to some of the people than nothing to all of the people.

But forget all that. When it comes down to it, do brands really need to pretend they’re OK with the kind of abhorrent views a few people are banding around? Brands hold a unique and powerful ability to shape culture. I do think it’s important that brand owners decide whether they are happy to neglect that responsibility. I suspect there would still be plenty of money to go round without having to play to the bigots.

Shiona McDougall

Global chief strategy officer, Rapp

Brands have always considered which customers to attract and keep. The criteria they use to make those decisions should go beyond how to maximise their own financial return and consider their role in shaping culture. Choosing to be a business that does not tolerate racism is lip service unless you demonstrate to customers and, importantly, employees that racism is unacceptable. We all need to take more action. Brands that choose not to do business with racists is action that will lead to cultural change.

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