Facing the Firestorm

Facing the Firestorm

4 minute read

How can brands be resilient in polarised times? Sebastian Parker and Ishani Rege from Creative Equals, WFA's strategic partner for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, sum up the key lessons from a recent WFA webinar on campaign backlash.

Article details

  • Inclusion Consultants (Strategy & Insight), Creative Equals
29 April 2024
Sebastian & Ishani
Sebastian Parker and Ishani Rege from Creative Equals, our strategic partner for DEI.

The marketing industry has been rattled by some high profile and controversial cases of backlash. However, being a progressive brand in an age of polarised conversations and sturdy filter bubbles means accepting backlash is inevitable. That shouldn’t stop you from being brave, but you do need a risk and resilience approach to protect brand reputation.

Algorithms fan the flames of polarisation as complex issues are summarised into clickbait headlines, in-fighting saturates social discourse and arguments over the appropriate boundaries within which critical conversations should take place are prioritised over the nuance of the conversations themselves.

This is set to intensify throughout 2024, the biggest electoral year in history, with more than 60 countries across the world, representing four billion people, headed towards the polls and the scale of impact of these elections being uncertain.

All of which means that there are ripples of fear, caution and chaos throughout Adland. Brands are not only facing backlash to campaigns that sit within wider debates, but also to their responses (or lack thereof) to backlash, creating a double backlash..

It must be noted that not all backlash is equal and the ability to discern where and why the backlash is coming from is an important step towards risk mitigation and resilience. When a brand can distinguish whether the backlash is important and constructive, consumer feedback or obstructive and in bad faith, marketers can more easily create a response plan.

It is more important than ever that brands stand by their diversity, equity and inclusion values. Marginalised groups are experiencing discrimination at alarming rates. The tension between greater representation and hyper-visibility has left many vulnerable. Backtracking on DEI commitments weakens brands’ position within culture and society and raises questions around the authenticity of those commitments.

Building resilience and integrity will not only help brands to battle the storm, but ultimately to come out stronger than before.

Key principles to adopt

So, how do brands build resilience and integrity? At Creative Equals, we have identified five key principles for risk mitigation, resiliency and reputation management: Be Conscious, Be Prepared, Be Resilient, Be Accountable and Be Human.

1. Be Conscious

Consciousness and sensitivity are required throughout moments of instability:

  1. Understanding the socio-political context that both your brand and category operate within and the cultural nuances that exist across diverse markets. Building knowledge and awareness will in turn build internal confidence in the brand’s stance, allowing your team to stand strong.
  2. If backlash does occur, identify who is speaking and why. Be conscious of the nuances of ideology and intention. Do the views and motivations of those reacting align with your brand purpose and DEI commitments? Decipher the difference between constructive feedback and obstructive prejudice. Sometimes backlash is just hatred in disguise and identifying it as such will determine your response.

2. Be Prepared

Backlash to progressive marketing is inevitable. Challenging hierarchical structures and discriminatory conventions will always lead to disenfranchisement for some, so expect there to be some noise:

  1. First, establish brand permission and whether your brand has the right to engage with certain topics.
  2. Next, align on your backlash threshold – what are the risks and what are you are willing to endure in the quest for progression?

3. Be Resilient

Don’t allow the noise to force you to retreat. Backlash often comes from a small group of people with a loud megaphone. The ‘go woke, go broke’ movement has been emboldened by effective brand takedowns, so don’t embolden them further:

  1. If you stand your ground and live your values, it is likely that the noise will dissipate.
  2. Embed resilience within your DEI and campaign strategies. Your response to backlash should never undermine your core values and inclusion commitments.

4. Be Accountable

Brands need to close the ‘Ally Gap’, the gap that exists between a brand’s intent to do the right thing and their ability to actually do the right thing when the heat is on:

  1. Don’t reward the wrong behaviour. Giving in into fear and prioritising negative hate is ultimately a losing game.
  2. If you do get it wrong, take responsibility for the impact of your brand’s campaign, regardless of its intention. Show genuine curiosity and desire to learn and improve.

5. Be Human

Stand by your communities and your employees. Good partners aren’t just around for the good times, they are also there when a community is under attack. Supporting marginalised groups is an ongoing project that should exist beyond cultural moments.

Yes, risk is inevitable, but that shouldn’t be the reason brands hold back on progressive marketing and creative bravery. In fact, developing an appetite for risk will build resilience.

Backlash provides a unique opportunity in which your brand has a temporary platform to recommit to and live out its values. Whether the backlash is coming from the anti-‘woke’ or the hyper-‘woke’, instigators of cancel culture or disgruntled loyal customers, leading with integrity and authenticity is always key.

Want to know more about WFA's DEI efforts and be involved? Join our DEI Community.

Article details

  • Inclusion Consultants (Strategy & Insight), Creative Equals
29 April 2024