June 24, 2020

Brand “reactivism” in the COVID era & how you can combat it

Katie Price Ross

Associate Media Director

When companies shut their doors to stop the spread of COVID and employees headed home, we didn’t know the world was on the brink of a major wake-up call. People actually had time to sit, reflect, breathe, and really, truly come face-to-face with the world they’ve created for themselves. Tough questions have been asked. “Am I making an impact?” “Do I really want my kids to grow up in this world?” “Am I happy with who I am?”

The thing that many forgot is, in today’s world, brands are humans, too. Consumers expect brands to embody their beliefs, to be authentic, and most importantly, to evolve. And, while we were all focusing on ourselves, brands had yet to look deep in their organizations and ask themselves those same questions. “Are we really making an impact?” “Do we want our kids to grow up in this world we’re contributing to?” “Are we happy with who we are?”

While these questions went unanswered, the country’s call for racial justice grew from a sporadic outcry to a constant, overwhelming scream. Brands were left to quickly, sometimes clumsily, react. At Curiosity, we encouraged our clients to take a momentary break from social advertising, carefully consider their core beliefs, and ensure when they return they are sensitive to the current crisis. Because consumers are watching. 

This reactivism, or quickly responding to a larger issue with words and intentions to align yourself to a movement instead of sharing concrete plans or actions, has plagued the marketing world for decades and become more and more of a hot button topic in recent years. For a brand, it’s so easy to fall into the trap of urgently responding to cultural issues. There’s a risk in looking insensitive or like you don’t care if you don’t address a topic, but addressing something too quickly is also risky. So, what’s the right thing to do?

Here’s the tough answer - there is no “right”. Anything a brand does can rub someone the wrong way. The internet is where consumers have the power at their fingertips to say why or how your brand is in the wrong. The right thing to do is to ask your organization those hard questions and proactively decide what matters to you. When you can’t please everyone, the least you can do is feel good about what you’ve done at the end of the day.

This notion is going to be extremely critical as we enter the back half of 2020. With elections around the corner, the social media environment will likely continue to be turbulent and you may find yourself asking if your brand needs to react on social media. In these situations, consider the following:

What are you as a company doing and do you have a place to speak on this topic?

When COVID first hit, consumers didn’t really care about emails from random clothing brands with their responses to the issue, because it really doesn’t pertain to them. On the flip side, when the current administration announced plans to reduce national monuments in the southwest, Patagonia took a hard stand and had legs (with hiking sock tan lines) to stand on since it has long been a proponent of protecting the environment. 

Make sure you feel strongly enough to enter the conversation and make a stand and be willing to lose some fans.

Nike’s campaign with Colin Kaepernik is one of their most fan-dividing moments yet, but the brand felt strongly enough to take a stand and was willing to take the risks that came with it. (Shoe burning, anyone?) In proactively making this statement, they made more room for themselves to take part in future conversations. 

Above all, be true to the actions you’ve taken, be authentic, and be clear.

No one likes brands that aren’t true to themselves. Take McDonald’s and their infamous flipping of the “M” to celebrate International Women’s Day. While the goal was to show that they celebrate women and all they’ve contributed to the company, they were called out by employees past and present who make less than men, endure harassment, and don’t have satisfactory benefits. Had McDonald’s taken a hard look at how they actually celebrate women, this PR effort may have been vetoed and real action might have proactively been taken. 

With COVID making the rest of 2020 look a little hazy, take this time to start thinking proactively about your brand and your core values. Ask those hard questions, determine what you stand for, and take action to make the world a better place now, instead of after the next wake-up call.

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