After Kellogg's, Zulily and Allstate announced ads for their brands will no longer run on the Breitbart News website whose content was deemed racist, misogynistic and xenophobic by many consumers, Breitbart rallied its readers calling the pull out un-American and inspiring a #dumpKellogg hashtag from supporters.
And that face off, in turn, is raising the question of whether brands should reconsider trying to make deep, emotional connections with consumers, especially consumers who may have opposing points of view, prompting some observers to suggest brands ease up on social relevance. "So what can brands do?" Fortune asked. "There may be no way they can truly 'win.' The divisiveness of this election is a business risk for now, which may—or may not—dissipate over time."
For brands, it will be difficult to put the genie back in the bottle. Whether shopping online or in-store, consumers want and have become conditioned to finding opportunities for discovery. That means not only seeing a product in each of its shades, shapes, sizes, and textures, but understanding how their lives benefit from a product and how a product aligns with their world view. And increasingly, this discovery includes understanding a brand's social relevance.
Consumers are no longer satisfied with the traditional one-dimensional brand image. They want a living, multi-faceted representation of a brand that engages at a deeper level, reflects forward thinking, and is socially as well as culturally relevant. Think Dove's "Real Beauty," which years ago staked out a position on women and perceptions of beauty, as well as Always' "Like a Girl" and Honey Maid's "Blended Family" campaigns, all touching consumers in a way that blurs the boundaries of marketing and life.
More and more, this socially relevant campaign genre is less the exception and more the cost of entry. Fisher Price is featuring children with Down Syndrome in its campaign, partly, the company says, in response to the growing diversity of its global customer base and because younger consumers are demanding that companies show where they stand on issues.
And in the post election world of today, this demand for a stand is increasing. In a recent interview with Red, White & Blog, Michael Maslansky, CEO of the language strategy firm maslansky+partners, noted, "With the rise of Trump and the tribalization and polarization we've seen over this cycle, companies feel they have to take a stronger stance and stand up for certain values."
Similarly, there is no walking back for companies that have been vocal about environmental issues or advocates of gender and LGBT rights. Brands cannot abandon their beliefs.
The younger generation, in particular, expects brands to be socially involved. For a label or brand to succeed, there must be a real connection to people, as consumers are increasingly influenced by what's happening socially and culturally, locally and globally. Already we've seen revolts against racism and sexism. The next battlegrounds will include ageism, sizeism and other isms that haven't even been thought of yet.
Like naturalism, for example, where retouching images to enhance beauty, reduce age or promote strength is giving way to a preference for the unadorned. Recent work for American Eagle's lingerie brand Aerie is notable for shots with zero retouching and a "keep it, freckles and all" attitude. What were once considered unattractive imperfections are now being celebrated as original, authentic and diverse beauty, as MILK just showed with the launch of its new beauty line.
Social relevance is also at work in Target's marketing. Target advertising has evolved from stylishly whimsical to social relevance with inclusive campaigns featuring plus size as well as multi-generational and multi-racial models. And threatened with social irrelevance, consider Barbie's transformation, which has made it one of Time's product inventions of 2016. Where there was originally one blue-eyed, blonde Barbie there are now four body types and 10 different skin colors.
What does this mean for brands? There is a need for more thoughtful and socially relevant content relatable to different expectations, lifestyles, cultures and ethnicities. Content strategy is no longer identifying the look of a person in a specific situation. It's about being more blended and reflective.
And it's about respect. Companies seen as respecting their consumers are the ones most highly rated by consumers on authenticity and trust, according to the Consumer Quotient Study by C Space.
For a brand to be relevant today, it has to be authentic, have purpose, get and give respect. And such content, across all platforms, is key to a wider view and continued relevance. Political brands might take note.
—Cecilia Streit leads sales and marketing at CreativeDrive where she is chief growth officer.