Aurora Magazine

Promoting excellence in advertising

Hypocrisy or Authenticity?

The war in Gaza has once again put the spotlight on how brands react to world-shaping crises, and they are not always consistent, comments Shahzeb Hasan.
Published 05 Jan, 2024 03:32pm

In a world more divided than ever before, where social and political issues constantly brew beneath the surface, we find ourselves at a crossroads. The words of Martin Luther King Jr remind us that “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”

In these tumultuous times, the world needs forces of good to bring about positive change, shift perspectives and unite people in times of chaos. These forces have historically been individuals such as Martin Luther King Jr, Abdul Sattar Edhi, Mahatma Gandhi or NGOs such as Save the Children, Care International or our very own Edhi Foundation.

Whereas these individuals and organisations have made it their mission to bring about change, one such force can be found in the most unexpected places – brands. These cultural behemoths have the platforms, resources, and means to tackle the divisive issues of our time, bridging gaps and creating a positive impact.

Over the years, the role of brands and companies has evolved. Historically, their primary focus was to create and deliver products and services and it was deemed beyond their responsibilities to have a social duty to speak up. However, this has changed. Today, companies strive to establish deeper meanings behind their brands and recognise the importance of standing for something greater than profit. Take TOMS, with its ‘One for One’ business model, which donates a pair of shoes for every pair sold.

One may argue that for capitalistic corporations, altruism is forced, always secondary to profit and at times just a means to justify their exploitation of the world they operate in under the banner of CSR. However, this perspective has shifted. Corporations are increasingly mindful of the fact that their consumers now demand that the brands they consume align with their beliefs and values and are sincere and authentic. Communications firm Edelman’s report reveals that two-thirds of respondents say they would buy products based on these beliefs and values, showing that consumers are becoming more discerning, and that brands must respond accordingly. Another research by Sprout Social, a social media management solutions company, indicates that 66% of the individuals surveyed believe that it is important for brands to engage with issues that matter and that they want to know where their favourite brands stand on the causes that are important to them.

Increasingly, brands understand and acknowledge the positive impact that social leadership may bring; however, unlike some cases of purpose-driven marketing, such as brands committing to causes like environmental sustainability; for example, Adidas’ commitment to using only recycled plastics by 2024, brands participating in or supporting a political or social cause realise that it can be a double-edged sword, with both risks and rewards – so brands need to tread carefully. Companies fear unwanted attention or backlash which may alienate a segment of their customer base and negatively impact their image and ability to attract new customers, all of which can ultimately impact the company’s bottom line. On the flip side, the potential rewards are substantial. Supporting a cause can strengthen customer loyalty, lead to financial gains and create the perception that the brand’s values align with those of its customers. Moreover, it can shape public opinion and potentially lead to lasting change, cementing a reputation for the brand as a moral leader and change agent while fortifying relationships with customers.

Nike’s decision to support Colin Kaepernick when he took the knee to protest racial injustice and police brutality in America (a move that cost him his career) in their 2018, ‘Believe in Something’ campaign initially met with backlash that caused Nike to lose three percent of its share price. Yet, in the end, Nike’s online sales jumped by 31%, and their stock rebounded. This example shows how taking a stance can not only align with values but also make good business sense.

Gillette’s ‘The Best a Man Can Be’ campaign is another laudable instance. The brand took a firm stand against toxic masculinity, sparking conversations and receiving widespread support for their commitment to positive change. Ben & Jerry’s is another brand that has always had activism at the core of its brand values. This was highlighted in their decision to stop selling ice cream in Israeli settlements on the basis that sales in occupied Palestinian territories were inconsistent with its values. However, not all brands handle activism well. Take Pepsi’s infamous Kendall Jenner ad, which attempted to support the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement but fell flat in the process. It was a glaring example of how a brand’s well-intentioned activism can miss the mark horribly and even indirectly trivialise critical issues.

Navigating through political/social activism can be a treacherous task and in this quest, the biggest cardinal sin a brand can make is coming off as being unauthentic or worse, hypocritical.

This hypocrisy on the part of some brands and companies has been on full display since the beginning of the war in Ukraine. Ever since Russia’s invasion, brands such as McDonald’s, Microsoft, Google, Toyota and Disney, to name a few, were quick to pick sides and take action ranging from pledging funds to Ukraine to closing down their operations in Russia. In contrast, their response has been fairly muted when it comes to the Palestine-Israel conflict. The same brands – McDonald’s, Microsoft, Google – have even gone as far as to express support for the occupier, in this case, Israel. Such selectivity not only raises questions about their commitment to genuine activism but also highlights a glaring hypocrisy.

In the words of Uncle Ben from Spider-Man, “With great power comes great responsibility.” Brands, with their immense reach and influence, have a moral obligation to be good, responsible corporate citizens of the world, bridging divides and creating positive change. While there are risks in taking a stance on political and social issues, there are also immense rewards. By navigating these challenges with authenticity and sincerity, brands can make a positive difference. The path they choose can not only define their future but also the world’s.

Shahzeb Hasan is a marketing and brand professional from IBA and LUMS, with over seven years of experience working in brand and product management across multiple industries.