The NFL Has Entered the Culture War: Is Your Brand Next?

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Brands are playing an increasing role in our escalating culture wars, with the NFL only the latest to find itself on the frontlines.

Don't be fooled, your brand could be next—and no path forward is easy. Beverage companies must weigh child obesity with a person's right to choose what to drink. Google was slammed both for under-representing female engineers and for limiting free speech when it fired the author of well-publicized, anti-female rant. Even small brands and independent businesses become headline news when the culture wars intersect with day-to-day business.

An emotional journey drives brand love and loyalty
The NFL finds itself in the culture war, and it must have a viable plan for long-term sustainability. Over 80% of a business' value resides within intangible assets, much of which is attributed to brand equity. To build real value, the first step is to stop trying to control your brand and focus on becoming a proactive influencer of your brand perception.

Brands need to plan for the culture war by playing a conscious part in their employees' and customers' emotional journey. It is necessary to understand the interconnected -- and interdependent -- relationships between your brand and popular culture. Social media listening, customer service, public relations -- these groups must become the front lines of information for senior executives creating a go-forward strategy. Often, the writing is on the wall that an organization is vulnerable to a sensitive issue. Take Colin Kaepernick, who "took a knee" in August 2016 and has been a lightening rod for popular culture discussions ever since.

There is purpose in purpose, and value in values
As people become more socially conscious, they become more selective about the brands with which they affiliate. At the same time, today's workforce is seeking organizations that align with their values and provide purposeful employment.

If a business desires growth and sustainability, it is left with no choice but to become socially conscious. Coke is showing commercials with smaller soda bottles; Exxon and Shell are investing in sustainable fuels. These moves combine business sustainability with social consciousness.

Purpose-driven brands and values-based businesses are rapidly gaining market share. The brands that will survive and thrive are the ones who have the foresight to understand how popular culture is evolving, and adapt. Facebook created Facebook University to recruit and train employees from more diverse backgrounds, understanding that this was both socially conscious and relevant for their diversifying customer profile.

Your culture is your brand, so be the brand you want to create
Your brand identity is not defined by the "words on the wall." UnderArmour may post its code of conduct on its website, but that didn't stop the company from having to deal with a backlash from "divisive" comments the CEO made about having a "pro-business" president. Your vision, mission, brand promise and values should be brought to life through the actions of your employees and executives, as well as the experiences they provide to customers.

Brands like Nordstrom and Starbucks famously use a playbook to unify employees and specify how they should treat consumers in normal business transactions. Now, companies need a code to govern their larger involvement in cultural issues.

What should the NFL do? It has two options.

It could empower each team to make their own choice as to how they will express themselves and live their values. Sponsors could then decide which teams they choose to sponsor, based on those who align with their own brand and customer values. Alternatively, the NFL could take a unified stance, establishing new rules for all of its teams. Only time will tell how the NFL will choose.

As for your brand, the time is now to define and align your values internally. Create a plan for communicating those values in words and in action that includes every employee. With a consistent, socially-conscious strategy in place, the culture wars become less threatening.

Game on!

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