Addressing the elephant in the room: How should brands tackle sensitive subjects?Addressing the elephant in the room: How should brands tackle sensitive subjects?

Addressing the elephant in the room: How should brands tackle sensitive subjects?

Written by Sophie DiMauro on 4th Aug 2017
[Credit: Pepsi]

Brexit. Donald Trump. How we should tackle terrorism. And who should be held responsible for government failings? These are all current subjects that you’d probably only discuss with family and friends if you were ready for a heated debate, a couple of passive aggressive comments followed by that exhaustive awkwardness when the room goes silent as you conclude that actually, you’re never going to change your great uncle John’s views on immigration.

Avoiding sensitive subjects is something that both humans and brands are guilty of. Sometimes it’s easier to look past our problems or put them to one side while we concentrate on the more pressing and less stressful issues we face in everyday life. Although we may know that this is not the right way to deal with these tricky subjects, we hope that if we ignore it for long enough, it will eventually just go away, and sometimes, if we’re lucky, it does. For brands, sometimes tackling sensitive subjects isn’t the answer and in many cases it can be better if they steer clear.

In business, if you’re marketing a brand for a service or product that relates to a sensitive subject then there’s no avoiding the elephant in the room – brands will have to tackle the topic head on. However, when it comes to politics, religion and other controversial issues that don’t directly relate to a business or organisation, how and if they respond to this is crucial in ensuring fans and customers don’t feel alienated.

Often, it is the way a brand deals with a subject that sets them apart from others. After all, venturing down avenues others have explored before and adopting approaches that have never been attempted before is what marketing is all about, right?

So how can brands tackle sensitive subjects? Knowing which issues to avoid and which issues to hone in on can have a real impact in the world of marketing. Here we take a look.

Brexit, for example

A prominent issue affecting the lives of Brits and citizens across the world, and a word we’ve seen splashed across newspapers and web articles for well over a year, is of course, Brexit. It’s the buzzword that is consuming our country and it is completely inescapable.

British newspapers discussing Brexit
[Credit: lenscap67 via iStock]

In the run up to the referendum, some brands went as far as using their position within the market to influence the decisions of voters. JD Wetherspoon chairman Tim Martin decided to launch a pro-Leave campaign which saw him distribute 500,000 beer mats in Wetherspoons across the country urging pub-goers to ‘take back control’ and Leave the European Union (EU).

Was this the best marketing strategy in tackling the controversial Brexit vote? While the chain’s political campaign hasn’t seen a fall in the numbers of people visiting the pub for a pint, the immediate aftermath of the Brexit decision saw millions wiped off the value of the chairman’s shareholding. The motive behind it all? Well that would be money of course.

Staying out of it all

Traditionally, when it comes to sensitive subjects, brands are advised to stay out of things. By having an agenda or certain opinion, they can run the risk of losing a significant portion of their customers.

The Taylor Swift Inc – a multi-million dollar entity – is completely unrelated to US politics. The pop star’s fans just want good music, regular tour dates and exciting music videos, right? Wrong. While in the past the singer has been vocal about supporting young women in the music industry and is seen by her fans as a feminist icon, when it came to the US election, Taylor seemed to fall off the face of the earth. And her absence here was noted.

Take the Kardashians for example – the most famous family on the planet and yet opinion is something they just don’t do, despite accusations of cultural appropriation. Earlier this year, Pepsi had to pull their ‘insensitive’ advert featuring Kendall Jenner, but the star stayed silent, regardless of backlash from fans.

Taylor Swift in line to vote during 2016 US presidential election
[Credit: @taylorswift via Instagram]

More than ever before, celebrities, actors, models, politicians, TV stars and those with a strong social media following are using their position to influence fans, even if it puts their brand at risk. We are transforming into a society where honesty and opinion is expected of celebrities, and a failure to speak out can raise suspicion.

Despite being named as one of Time’s 100 most influential people in the icons category, right up until polling day, Taylor didn’t give even the slightest of hints who she was voting for. This triggered conspiracy theories among fans – some even convinced she has links to Trump –  who were desperate to know where her loyalties lay.

A millennial way of thinking

According to Global Tolerance, 42 per cent of the workforce now want to be employed by an organisation that has a positive impact on the world, and this is no different for consumers. An article in Forbes argues that millennials choose brands with pro-social messages, sustainable manufacturing methods and ethical business standards.

The article highlighted statistics from a report by Nielson showing that globally, 66 per cent of consumers are willing to spend more on a product if it comes from a sustainable and ethical brand. When it came to millennials, 73 per cent indicated a similar preference. In addition to this, a staggering 81 per cent of millennials expect their favourite companies to make a public declaration of their corporate citizenship.

As we see the emergence of millennials and Generation Z into the market, brands now need to think not only about their product or service, but the beliefs and values behind their it too. Younger consumers want companies to be invested in a better society by prioritising the world around them and doing their bit to help.

Principles on Clipboard with Paper Sheet on Table with Office Supplies Around. 3d Rendering. Blurred Illustration.
[Credit: Tashatuvango via iStock]

Be honest

Younger generations also have a focus on companies being open and honest about their efforts. As cliché as it sounds, honesty really is the best policy, especially when it comes to marketing. From Twitter’s #SeeEverySide hashtag to TalkTalk TV’s ‘most vocal and honest critics’ campaign earlier this year, marketing campaigns that feature off-the-cuff, genuine commentary, gain customers’ trust and certainly gets them interested in a brand.

In every walk of life, people appreciate honesty and this is no different when you’re selling a product or service. According to a study by Cohn & Wolfe, the number one quality or behaviour that people demand of big brands is communicating honestly about products and services.

Sugar-coating a particular issue can have a negative impact on the customer if things don’t play out the way your company suggested it would, and in turn your brand could lose credibility.

Yet despite this, it’s important to remember that there’s no correct, textbook way to tackle a sensitive subject and each campaign should be treated uniquely. As times change, so does your audience, but putting yourself in the shoes of whoever is reading or coming into contact with your campaign is certainly a good place to start.

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