Branded Content

Empathy, compassion and creative storytelling: why taking a stand matters

Lydia Polgreen, Editor-in-Chief of HuffPost

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As a journalist working in a time of unprecedented social change, in the face of intractable challenges, I’ve seen first-hand how people respond to a world in the throes of transformation. People are no longer content to sit on the sidelines and are demanding in word and deed that brands stand up for values they share. It’s something I hear every day from members of the HuffPost community. 

This has posed real challenges and opportunities for us as journalists, but also for brands. For decades, companies have fretted about the context in which their brand messages are shared and shied away from taking a stand on issues that matter to their audience. Who can blame them? The world feels increasingly polarized. Meanwhile, social media platforms have allowed a level of targeting and precision never before seen, but can also put brand messages side by side with unfiltered and dangerous content. 

Yet a focus on brand safety can only get you so far. Two thirds of consumers expect brands to take a stand on issues that matter to them, according to a study completed by Accenture last year. Consumers are increasingly making purchase decisions based on the values that companies espouse, shying away from products that don’t comport with their deeply held convictions. 

I believe that the time has come to rethink the concept of brand safety and embrace the challenge of brand courage. Consider Nike. It took a stand with American football player Colin Kaepernick, who refused to stand during the National Anthem in protest of police violence against unarmed African Americans. This decision cost him his career, and his actions were seen by some as deeply polarizing. Nike, however, embraced Kaepernick, making him the face of a viral campaign. Nike took some heat from critics, but consumers responded with such enthusiasm that the campaign added nearly $2 billion to Nike’s market capitalization. Other brands, like Gillette, are taking on topics like toxic masculinity and celebrating body diversity. 

A significant majority of consumers care deeply about social justice issues: gender and racial equality, the climate crisis and LGBTQ rights. They are voting with their attention and their pocketbooks to support brands that share their values. 

But today’s consumers are also deeply wary of cynical ploys to exploit their values, and highly attuned to signs that a brand’s commitment to values they espouse is authentic. Being in it for the long-term is crucial. Simply showing up at key moments is not enough. If you care about LGBTQ communities only in June, you are doing it wrong. If you only focus on climate change around Earth Day, consumers will know whether you really mean it. If your messages about inclusion only appear during Black History Month, people are paying attention. I know this because our news readers expect us to highlight the issues they care about – not just when they are in the news, but every day. For us, that means a deep focus on these issues, day in and day out.