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Tina Casey headshot

The Top 5 Brands Taking Stands Stories Continuing into 2019

By Tina Casey

A leadership vacuum in the White House has created an opening for corporate America to step up and advocate for human rights, civil rights and other integral issues that are normally under the purview of federal policy makers. It is a unique opportunity for the ongoing brands taking stands movement. In 2017 and 2018, corporate social responsibility (CSR) rippled far beyond the factory gates and c-suites to address fundamental problems faced by employees, customers and the nation. Here are five CSR stories from 2018 that will continue to resonate in 2019.

1. The Murder Of Jamal Khashoggi

The brutal murder of Saudi journalist and U.S. resident Jamal Khashoggi in October could elevate the corporate social responsibility movement to a new level of activism. However, so far it has exposed the limitations of brands taking stands.

When the horrific crime occurred last October it first sparked an immediate corporate backlash against the Saudi government, which has been directly implicated in planning and overseeing the murder of Khashoggi, who was a regular columnist for the Washington Post.

The government's role came to light soon after news of the murder broke, and TriplePundit noted that the act amounted to a "brutal, bloody dare" to the CSR movement. That dare has grown more brutal and bloody as each new piece of evidence emerges.

Unfortunately, in terms of brands taking stands the backlash was narrow in scope, and short in duration.

The problem lies in the volume of Saudi investments in Silicon Valley, the oil and gas industry, and other top U.S. companies, the intersection between Saudi business interests and the companies controlled by President Trump and his family, and of course, nation-level alliances and defense contracts.

Clean tech companies are also entangled. The U.S. electric vehicle startup Lucid Motors, for example, received an "eye-popping" $1 billion investment from the Saudi sovereign wealth fund just weeks before the murder occurred.

In addition, earlier this year Saudi Arabia launched its ambitious new Neom "green megacity" project. The prospect of significant new business opportunities in Neom may also be dampening the clean tech community's appetite for activism.

Nevertheless, the stakes ramped up considerably in the waning days of 2018. The Khashoggi murder has rippled out to push other stories about overreach by the Saudi government into the news, including this episode:

Saudi Arabian officials arrested a partner at consulting giant McKinsey & Co. in the fall of 2017 and have been holding him in detention since then, people familiar with the matter say. In recent months, he has been repeatedly beaten, two of those people said.

McKinsey is already on the hot seat over its contract work for the Saudi government and other authoritarian regimes. According to the Wall Street Journal, McKinsey has stated that it no longer employs the detained man. Still, the story adds fuel to the fire.

Looking ahead to 2019: The Khashoggi murder will continue to fester throughout 2019 and beyond -- and it will continue to expose both the possibilities and the limits of brands taking stands.

2. Nike: Brands Really Can Take Stands

In 2017, during the height of the Black Lives Matter movement, women's marches and other protests, Pepsi decided to use the theme of civil activism as the backdrop for a new television ad featuring model and reality television celebrity Kendall Jenner of the Kardashian business empire. Needless to say, the ad went over like a lead balloon. The Guardian provided a representative critique in April 2017:

The ad has been criticized for seemingly co-opting the resistance movement while framing a privileged, white 21-year-old supermodel with a can of soda as a peacemaker between civil rights activists and police.

The two-and-a-half minute ad, soundtracked by Bob Marley’s grandson Skip Marley, shows the Keeping Up with the Kardashians star walking out of a photo shoot decked in double denim to join a protest where breakdancing and headscarf-wearing activists of all ethnicities carry signs bearing peace symbols and messages like “join the conversation” and “love”.

Yep, it was that bad.

The Pepsi debacle provides a stunning contrast with Nike's 2018 "Just Do It" campaign re-launch, featuring football star and well known civil rights activist Colin Kaepernick. In addition to showcasing an actual activist, the new Nike campaign also involved a strong element of walking the walk including a million-dollar commitment by Nike to contribute to the Kaepernick Foundation. The foundation supports Kaepernick's Know Your Rights Camp, which fosters civil rights education.

Most importantly, the campaign placed Nike firmly on the progressive side of a political hot potato.

That exposed Nike to a considerable amount of risk. However, it was a calculated risk. Kaepernick's on-field protest against police violence sparked the ire of right wing pundits, but Nike was paying more attention to the concerns of its customers, especially the up-and-coming generation.

Timing also came into play. Nike launched the campaign launched early in September, just as the run-up to the 2018 midterm elections was beginning to gather steam. True to form, President Trump soon weighed in. His public criticism of Kaepernick was just icing on the cake in terms of cementing Nike's position as a cultural icon of resistance to authoritarianism.

Looking ahead to 2019: The Nike campaign is a tough act to follow, but 2019 could see more brands taking a firm, public stand in opposition to Trump's policies on climate change, immigration and gun control among other issues -- especially as evidence mounts on Trump's history of malfeasance both in and out of the White House.

3. Brands Taking Stands On Gun Control, Intentionally Or Not

In 2018, corporate action on gun control combined with a powerful new wave of grassroots activism, galvanized by the student survivors of the Parkland school massacre in Florida.

Dick's Sporting Goods, Starbucks, Walmart and Levi Strauss were among the major U.S. companies that went out on a limb to take a stand for common sense gun control before and during 2018.

In particular, Levi-Strauss doubled down on gun control last September, when it announced a new partnership with the national organization Everytown for Gun Safety.

Everytown supports the grassroots gun control organization Moms Demand Action, which backed the winning candidates in a slew of high stakes races during the November 2018 election.

The most significant development occurred in November, when FedEx confirmed that it would no longer provide a shipping discount to the NRA. Previously, FedEx had resisted considerable pressure from gun control activists to sever ties with the organization.

Rather than acknowledging the activist pressure, FedEx framed the move as part of a broader initiative aimed at shedding unproductive affiliations. The New York Times explained:

…FedEx said on Tuesday that its decision to end its marketing relationship with the N.R.A. was the result of a review that began months ago. The review showed that members of the group did not bring in enough shipping volume to warrant its participation in the program, the company said. More than 100 companies were dropped from the discount program as part of the review.

The FedEx action only applies to the NRA organization (individual members still get a discount), but even just dropping the organization from its discount roster was a decision that exposed the company to risk and criticism.

Looking ahead to 2019: As more information comes to light regarding the NRA's links to Russia, more brands will become find politically neutral ways to sever ties or take a public stand against the organization.

4. Social Media Gets Schooled

When the grassroots boycott campaign Sleeping Giants launched in 2016, it demonstrated the power of consumers to influence brand behavior through their advertising platforms.

The campaign focused on the notorious "hate site" Breitbart News, which was instrumental in amplifying then-candidate Trump's messaging during the 2016 election cycle. Sleeping Giants encouraged consumers to contact brands that were advertising on Breitbart, let the companies know their ads were appearing on a hate site and then share that information on social media.

Sleeping Giants soon began to target bad behavior on television including a successful campaign against Fox personality Bill O'Reilly, as well as brands advertising on social media sites where notorious far-right personalities like Alex Jones have (or had) accounts.

By November of 2017, the strategy rippled out to ding Breitbart's chief financial backer and Trump "megadonor," Robert Mercer.

Unilever is one company that seems to have paid close attention to the risk exposure of brands that refuse to take stands against bad behavior in media. The company spotted an opportunity to position itself as a change agent in social media.

Last February, Unilever issued a public warning to Facebook, YouTube and other social media giants. The company took a stand based on the idea that advertising is part and parcel of a company's supply chain - and should be subjected to the same ethical principles, as reported in The Guardian:

...the company’s chief marketing officer Keith Weed told attendees at a conference lead by the Interactive Advertising Bureau that Unilever “…cannot continue to prop up a digital supply chain – one that delivers over a quarter of our advertising to our consumers – which at times is little better than a swamp in terms of its transparency.”

Weed's speech was an extraordinary moment in the brands taking stands movement. The problem, he argued, is not just offensive content. It comes down to a matter of institutional trust in the foundations of modern democratic government:
Consumers don’t care about third party verification. They do care about fraudulent practice, fake news, and Russians influencing the U.S. election. They don’t care about good value for advertisers. But they do care when they see their brands being placed next to ads funding terror, or exploiting children. They don’t care about sophisticated data usage or ad targeting via complex algorithms, but they do care about not seeing the same ad 100 times a day. They don’t care about ad fraud, but they do care about their data being misused and stolen.

Last summer, Unilever also expanded its transparency campaign by announcing that it would stop working with social media influencers who buy followers.

Looking ahead to 2019: Here in the U.S., hate speech is only part of social media's ongoing problem. Political propaganda is another key factor. Facebook in particular is already in trouble when the topic turns to Russia influencing the 2016 presidential election. As the Mueller investigation brings more evidence to light, more brands will be forced to take a public stand on social media.

5. When Brands Don't Take Stands: The Collapse Of Ivanka

When President Trump tapped his daughter Ivanka as one of his senior advisors, it presented a unique (and probably never to be repeated) opportunity for a brand to build its reputation on a platform of national policy.

The potential for a history-making event in brand identity was in fact realized, though certainly not in the way that Ms. Trump anticipated.

The seeds of trouble were sown during the 2016 presidential election, when the grassroots campaign #GrabYourWallet targeted all Trump family businesses for boycott. Like Sleeping Giants, the strategy was to hold leading brands responsible for their relationships with tarnished brands,

Under the #GrabYourWallet hashtag, consumers were encouraged to identify and criticize major retailers that carried Ivanka Trump's eponymous Ivanka fashion brand. At first the strategy did not seem to gain much traction, but industry followers soon took note of that signs of slippage were showing.

It didn't help much early on when another Trump advisor, Kellyanne Conway, exposed herself to a serious ethics violation by making a pitch for the Ivanka brand on television, or when the President himself publicly criticized Nordstrom for dropping the line from its stores.

Sure enough, by last July the Ivanka brand was officially dead. With considerable credit to Grab Your Wallet founder Shannon Coulter, a report in Glamour Magazine connected the brand's demise to consumer activism. Women didn't simply stop buying Ivanka products. They also contacted retailers individually and used the #GrabYourWallet platform to shine the media spotlight on them.

TriplePundit has often noted that consumer boycotts rarely succeed, but when they do the object of the boycott is often a brand that is already suffering reputational issues. The Ivanka boycott also worked, as Glamour reported, partly because the Ivanka brand was just one among many fashion options for women, not a lifestyle necessity like coffee or fast food.

Looking ahead to 2019: Ms. Coulter is reportedly planning to leverage the Grab Your Wallet knowledge base about consumer behavior to take on an advocacy role with a focus on labor rights. Brands that are paying attention will take steps to ensure that they stay ahead of the curve.

All in all: Brands take stands when consumers take stands. Top U.S. and global companies listen when the White House speaks, but they listen and take stands when consumers register complaints.

This year has all the makings of an even more powerful moment for the brands taking stands movement.

Photo: Know Your Rights Camp.

Tina Casey headshot

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.

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