We live in interesting times as brand marketers. Once almost all brands stayed clear of hot political and social issues, but today's trend to participate in what has become known as "advocacy marketing" has changed the game. Not only are consumers rewarding and punishing brands for their public stance on many issues, they are calling for some companies to take positions on issues. Brands that had no intention of taking a stand on a social or political cause may find themselves thrown into the debate anyway.
Procter & Gamble is the newest company in the line of fire. As Vladimir Putin's Russia has enacted draconian anti-gay legislation, the world's LGBT community has called for boycotts of the upcoming Olympics there and products like Stolichnaya Vodka. (Never mind that Stoli's owner is apparently headquartered in Luxembourg.)
Now a new chapter in this saga has arrived courtesy of noted Russian news personality Dmitry Kiselev. As he discussed organ donation during a news program -- originally aired April 4, 2012, but rediscovered amid coverage of the new anti-gay laws -- Kiselev said gays "should be banned from donating blood, sperm."
"And their hearts," he added, "in case of the automobile accident, should be buried in the ground or burned as unsuitable for continuation of life." An audience cheered his remarks.
Kiselev defended himself this week, saying he is not homophobic and arguing that his comments were in line with U.S. policy on blood transfusions, but reiterating his support for laws banning "homosexual propaganda."
So what does all this have to do with P&G? The manufacturer of great brands like Crest, Gillette and Tide happens to be the biggest advertiser on Rossiya1, the station that broadcast this program.
Among other actions and requests, gay rights advocates and supporters in America have called for P&G to pull all advertising from the station in a show of solidarity with LGBT people across the globe. P&G has not responded to this call as of this writing.
This situation points out several realities in today's world of brand marketing.
We live in a global economy with global transparency. U.S. consumers do not judge companies like P&G simply on the basis of their actions in this country. The internet has made access to information about the choices of brands far-reaching and almost immediate. Advocates for a position know more than ever before about the media buys and other actions of companies all over the world.
Big companies are seen as having responsibilities to their consumers like never before. At one time consumers might never have come to a conclusion that a company like P&G has an obligation to take an action on this issue. If a cry from consumers had come, it would more likely have been a request for cooperation. Consumers would see P&G as a partner whose support they could use to help with the issue. Today things are different. Consumers who buy brands feel they have a vote, a right to influence the actions of the company they buy from. And more importantly, many consumers believe the company has a duty to listen and respond.
You might not be able to just stay out of the fight. Even if your brand or your company has taken no clear stand on an issue and chooses not to participate in the advocacy marketing phenomenon, sitting instead on the sidelines, you may still be drawn into the fray. Manufacturers today must be ready to respond when consumers demand their support, and they must also educate themselves about the consequences for their business. Even choosing to not respond is a response that may mean an impact on sales and brand image for the short or long term. In this situation, if P&G pulls ads from the Russian-government station, there may be a significant loss in sales in Russia or even actions taken against P&G by the government itself. Plus, conservative U.S. consumers may respond negatively to the move. But if P&G chooses to do nothing, consumers in the U.S. and other countries who support gay equality may organize boycotts of P&G brands. Other possible outcomes may exist as well, some of them unpredictable.
The stakes of brand marketing are higher than ever. Consumers today look at their relationships with the brands they buy as an implied contract, one in which a brand is obligated to support the wishes of its consumers in return for loyalty. Brands that don't get that, especially those from larger companies that tend to be more visible, run the risk of losing the deep consumer relationships they have worked so hard to achieve.