Published in Mar-Apr 2022
Brands nowadays do a lot of good; they replant forests, support causes and donate generously to various charities. But occasionally, some brands will go beyond their obligatory CSR activities to do something truly inspiring. I am talking about when brands break character, seize an opportunity and act so unexpectedly, so genuinely and so humanly that it makes us fall in love with them all over again; altruistic acts that are not necessarily for the sake of PR, profits or popularity but rather because they are the right thing to do. It proves that brands do not always have to act with ROIs in mind or spend millions on elaborate marketing stunts to make an impact or a difference. In fact, sometimes it is the simplest, well-placed gestures that resonate with audiences, restore our faith in humanity, and remind us of the power brands have in building a better world.
Let me start with one of my favourite heart-warming stories. In 2019, a passer-by spotted a man proposing to his girlfriend in a KFC restaurant in Vaal, South Africa. He took a video of the heart-warming moment and posted it online hoping to garner likes. Unfortunately, a local journalist saw the video and bashed the soon-to-be husband for his gesture. She tweeted: “[South African] men are so broke they even propose at KFC… They have absolutely no class, I mean who proposes at KFC (laughing emoji) #KFCProposal.” Instead of ignoring the tweet, KFC responded by congratulating the couple on Twitter and asking locals to help locate them. That was when the story took a beautiful turn.
A swarm of international brands, such as Audi, Huawei Mobile, Puma, Uber and even competitors like McDonald’s, all jumped on-board the #KFCProposal bandwagon, sending thousands of dollars’ worth of free products, wedding gifts and services to the soon-to-be-married couple. The story went viral worldwide, generating millions of positive social media impressions and engagements. Needless to say, they all lived happily ever after, aww. The #KFCProposal is just one example of when brands make a conscientious effort to make a difference.
In 2016, the mega children’s clothing brand, OshKosh B’gosh, did something similar by featuring a 16-month-old child with Down syndrome (Asher Nash) as the lead model in their holiday wear campaign. Nash, who had previously been rejected by modelling agencies due to his ‘un-model-like’ appearance, starred as the main model in the campaign and went on to become the face of children with special needs. He was later featured in major campaigns for Ingenuity, Kids II, Num Num, Oball and Toys “R” Us. Apart from the feel-good factor, what I really love about these stories is knowing that these brands decided to act when they could have easily ignored these opportunities. KFC didn’t have to respond to the journalist’s nasty tweet, just like OshKosh didn’t have to give Asher a platform. There would have been no hoopla or public backlash. Audiences would have been none the wiser. These brands chose to do so because they saw an opportunity to make a difference, knew it was the right thing to do and were certain that audiences would respond positively – which they did; a true win-win for any brand.
Doing the right thing can also sometimes force brands to step outside their comfort zones, potentially alienating audiences and risking profits. The recent unprovoked Russian invasion of Ukraine, for example, caused giants like Apple, Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, Microsoft, PepsiCo and Starbucks to take a stand by pausing their operations in Russia, halting billions in product shipments and temporarily closing hundreds of outlets in protest.
Similarly, in 2021, when deranged Trump supporters stormed the Capitol, killing five people, brands protested by cutting campaign funding to the Republican Party and denying goods and services to Trump supporters. Brands such as Ben & Jerry’s, Instagram and Nike have also started to take a stance on more deeply-seeded social issues such as racism and gay rights, openly showing their support for marginalised minorities without the fear of backlash from their larger conservative audiences. It goes to show that some brands, like their audiences, are becoming more aware of the world around them and are recognising their role as agents for positive change. And in case you think such actions do not matter to people, think again. A recent poll showed that 65% of belief-driven buyers (half of the consumers worldwide) will refuse to buy a brand if it chooses to stay silent on an issue they think it should address and 57% say they would boycott a brand because of its position on an issue. Consumers nowadays are looking to forge deeper connections with brands based on shared values, beliefs and actions. In fact, they tend to choose brands much like they choose their social circle – based on their character, relatability and conviction to do what they say. As Simon Sinek once said: “People don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it and what you do simply proves what you believe.”
It is also why customers have become quick to reject brands that act less genuinely. Take Amazon for example; despite being one of the biggest brands on the planet, Amazon is becoming widely known for mistreating its employees and operating like a typical money-hungry corporation. It was poignantly summed up in one of Jeff Bezos’ recent tone-deaf statements thanking Amazon employees for “paying” for his private rocket trip to space. Contrast this with billionaire Elon Musk of SpaceEx and Tesla, who was ‘dared’ by the UN to use his money to help solve world hunger.
Musk responded by offering to sell six billion dollars’ worth of Tesla stock if the UN could provide a plan on exactly how the money would be spent. Despite the UN failing to deliver the plan, Musk went on to donate $5.7 billion to various charities a few weeks later – a testament to his long-term vision of building a better world. No matter what you think of Musk and his eccentric antics, there is no denying that it is people like him – and brands like his – that are truly dedicated to bringing real meaningful change to the world we live in.
As audiences become more ‘woke’ to the world around them, brands too need to do the same in order to stay relevant and maintain their share of heart. They need to keep an eye out for even the smallest windows of opportunities, involve themselves in important issues and take a stand when it matters. Most importantly, they need to remember that when communicating with humans, it pays to think and act like one, even if it means going against conventional strategies and initiatives. That is what matters to people nowadays and that is why it should matter the most to brands too.
Taimur Tajik is Creative Head, Interwood.