Are Brands on the right side of his­tory?

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?

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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 same­sex 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 so­cialpo­lit­i­cal 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?

Brands that do use so­cial causes to drive aware­ness or brand afànity have to also demon­strate that these causes are in­te­grated with their brand ethos and day-to­day busi­ness, be­yond Must a grab for Youtube views.

“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.

“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.”

Khaled Jar­rar’s work on the West Bank wall

Face­book sup­port­ing PRIDE day in the U.S.

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