Are brands on the right side of history?
Posted on August 09, 2017 | By Iain Akerman

Brands used to avoid politics and controversial issues like the plague, but some are now embracing them as the world becomes more politically polarised. So why aren’t companies doing the same thing in the Middle East?

When Palestinian artist Khaled Jarrar painted a section of the wall surrounding the occupied West Bank with the colours of the rainbow, it was immediately whitewashed by protesters. Angered by his perceived support of same-sex marriage in the US, Jarrar was subjected to death threats and various other forms of abuse on social media, despite the fact that the artist had painted the wall to raise awareness of the plight of Palestinians. 

The backlash highlighted the dangers of supporting – or even associating with – LGBT rights in a region where homosexuality is largely illegal and even punishable by death. They are dangers that brands have paid attention to. MasterCard, for example, tweeted in support of the US Supreme Court’s decision to legalise same-sex marriage in 2015. However, the brand’s Middle East and Africa account remained silent. Google and Uber took much the same stance.

Brands are strangely quiet in the Middle East when it comes to questions of politics and ethical issues, despite a new relationship between brands, personal identity, values and expression taking hold in other parts of the world.

A heightened political arena has led to brands re-evaluating their relationships with sometimes controversial issues, including LGBT rights, immigration, race relations and Islamophobia. Where do they stand politically? On the right side of history, or not?

The swing follows a general shift towards social and political consciousness. For instance, research by the US-based Global Strategy Group as far back as 2014 indicated that 56 per cent of Americans believed corporations should engage in dialogue surrounding controversial social-political issues. The study, which asked whether mixing business and politics was good for business, stated that, if managed well, a company’s reputation may benefit from taking a position on political or social issues. Starbucks, Airbnb and Budweiser have all taken political stances against Trump’s immigration policies, for example.

So why are regional brands – and the regional outposts of global brands – failing to do the same thing? And does support for a cause in one part of the world, but conveniently forgetting it in others, mean some are being two-faced?

“In today’s market, brands need to pivot and participate in and around the culture and cultures of their consumers, whether that’s coffee culture, football culture or an ethnic culture,” says Scott Feasey, chief executive of M&C Saatchi in the UAE. “Brands need to join in and create conversations they know will spark interest and engage their consumers. They mostly do this with the purpose of creating meaningful connections, helping to drive brand affinity. Of course, these are usually most effective when they fit with the brand’s passion and its core essence. Brands therefore generally adapt to the local culture, laws and expectations of those conversations.

“Brands that do use social causes to drive awareness or brand affinity have to also demonstrate that these causes are integrated with their brand ethos and day-to-day business, beyond just a grab for YouTube views.”

“Knowing this, it’s not surprising then that we see some radio silence from brands in some regions about sensitive issues. Business may be about more than the bottom line, but that bottom line remains the primary reason for being. 

“It’s also worth remembering that just because you engage consumers in one region on a particular topic, doesn’t mean you have to in every region. Just as you might change the brand message to fit the regional language, culture or product life cycle, so would you change the topics and cultural platforms you wish to engage in. Issues, social causes, topics and conversations also have life cycles, and brands need to think about when to come in and play a part. This doesn’t make the brand hypocritical. Of course, there is a big difference from not engaging in a region and actively denying a cause or going against it when you supported it in another region. Also, jumping on the bandwagon and aligning your brand with platforms that do not create a believable fit is negligent, as most consumers will see straight through it.”

‘Thinking globally and acting locally’, however, can backfire. Ikea came under fire for removing images of women and girls from the Saudi version of its catalogue. Similarly, it was criticised for creating a catalogue with male-only models in a bid to appeal to Israel’s ultra-orthodox community.

There are also risks associated with being politically involved, as Starbucks’ chairman and chief executive Howard Schultz discovered after writing of his “deep concern and heavy heart” following president Trump’s immigration ban. He laid out a series of plans, including hiring 10,000 refugees over five years and “building bridges, not walls, with Mexico” through continued investment in the region, only for the hashtag #BoycottStarbucks to trend on Twitter. 

“We must also remember that in countries such as the US, Australia and the UK to some extent, brands are invited to have an opinion and to be part of important social conversations to closer align with their consumers’ ideals,” says Feasey. “In other regions, this is not so and laws make it harder for brands to be involved in conversations.

“When the time is right, brands have stepped up to the plate and can be a driving force behind difficult social conversations, but it needs to be a good business decision first. They are businesses first and foremost. Brands that do use social causes to drive awareness or brand affinity have to also demonstrate that these causes are integrated with their brand ethos and day-to-day business, beyond just a grab for YouTube views.”