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Consumer Response to Face Mask Policies and Brand Statements and Actions Around Black Lives Matter

Jun 24, 2020

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It’s a challenging time for brands as they are faced with making choices without knowing what the next day will look like. We joined Deb Gabor of Sol Marketing for a conversation on new ways to understand what matters most to those customers, and share examples of brands that are engaging around the COVID-19 pandemic and Black Lives Matter protests.

The takeaway: More than ever, brands have to anchor their decisions on their values, which should align with those of their ideal customer. Watch the webinar below.

If you’re in brand marketing or communications, you’ve heard the call to respond to recent events that are impacting your consumers and your communities — from changing the way to roll out marketing, to adjusting products and services, and making statements or committing to action. Why is that?

“There is a sense of identity associated with the brands we engage with. How these brands live in the marketplace is a reflection on us — their consumers. This is why it’s more important than ever that brands engage with authenticity.”

If your customers’ identities are tied to your brand’s, then it becomes more important than ever to understand that the internet is made up of power groups (factions) with shared beliefs, interests, passions, and agendas — and that your customers are either members of these factions or influenced by them.

Brands wondering if they should send out an email, make an announcement, post on social, or take a stand should base their decisions on a more nuanced understanding of who their ideal customer is. Because the issues we’re facing as a society today — a global pandemic, civil rights, elections — are impacting consumers in ways that go beyond how old they are, where they work, where they are from, what channels they tune into… Brands need to understand what consumers care about and believe, who they engage with, how they connect, what they are influenced by and susceptible to.

Take K-pop Stans, for example. Would you have guessed they would have gotten involved with an effort to thwart a presidential rally? Based on their age — not likely. But if you understood their passion — not just for K-pop but for using the internet to connect and celebrate their fandom… you might be less surprised.

Why Brands Are Getting Caught Up in the Politics of Face Masks

Likewise, you would expect epidemiologists and health professionals to be the ones driving conversations about face masks requirements to prevent the spread of COVID-19 — but in fact it’s become a political conversation. Turns out, conspiratorial groups who care about politics used the face mask conversation to achieve the influence they seek. These factions were turned face masks into a symbol, and started to influence adjacent factions until the narrative made headlines and went mainstream. And now we’re all talking about it.

A conversation about health is now a conversation to score political points. Brands are now forced to engage in the face mask narrative, and no matter what action they take, it will have consequences because political groups will use brands as platforms to push their agenda. 

Consumer Response to Brand Statements, Actions Around Black Lives Matter

Conversations around Black Lives Matter protests are also highly charged and polarized but, perhaps unlike face masks, the conversation is sustained. It’s not just a news cycle. Do you have an obligation to participate in the conversation? 

According to Morning Consult, consumers say they want to hear from brands. Many traditionally silent brands changed their response policy for this issue. Among all adults, as well as both black and white consumers, more people than not said that if a company declined to make an official statement about the protests, that would cause them to see a brand in a less favorable light.

As brands have responded, factions have continued to take sides and co-opt those responses and use those brands as a platform to pursue their faction’s agenda.

We’ve seen that left-leaning factions have been mostly vocal about how long it’s taken brands to speak up against discrimination. And, they have raised concerns about accountability, and brands showing vs. telling their support. On the other side, right-leaning factions have expressed disapproval toward brands, claiming that all lives matter and that BLM promotes division. Right-leaning factions have also been more proactive about calling for brand boycotts.

Some of the most celebrated brands were those whose statements appeared to customers, to be in alignment and consistent with the brand’s long-standing mission and values.

Can you choose to sit out and not get involved in politics? “It really is a damned if you do, damned if you don’t situation,” said Gabor. “And you have to go back to who your ideal customer is and then the question becomes: How hard are you willing to work, and who are you willing to lose, in order to get closer to your ideal customer?”

Indeed, consumer response was significant when it was reported that Aunt Jemima, one of the long-time brands of The Quaker Oats Company, a subsidiary of PepsiCo, Inc., would go through a rebrand. Even though the brand had been through a slow evolution for 131 years, the change was going to result in backlash. But after the brand was called out by a TikTokker the decision had to be a result of answering the questions: Who are our customers? What do they care about? 

Perhaps the brand saw itself in the Millennials and Gen Zers that shared and celebrated the TikTok video, and the values they share as a generation which they expect to share with the brands they choose to endorse with their purchases.

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