CMO Network Summit: How the Rules of Political Engagement Have Changed for Brands in 2021

CMO Network Summit

Silencing important issues is fraught with growing risks, marketers said at the CMO Network Summit

Companies have more political and cultural issues to deal with today than ever before, but that doesn’t mean they have to react to everything that appears in the headlines, marketing executives say.

There are no clear rules for every situation that can arise, from calls to “undo” endorsement deals to pressure for proposed legislation, executives said, speaking at The Wall Street Journal CMO Network Summit.

Frank Cooper, chief marketing officer of the world’s largest wealth management company, BlackRock Inc. and a well-known corporate expert on issues such as the environment, said the silence during heated conversations with consumers is likely to serve as a signal of sorts.

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“Some people think a CEO can either be outspoken or silent, and then a silent CEO is a safer place,” Mr. Cooper said. “But in my view, silence is also a moral choice, and more and more stakeholders, whether it’s employees, communities, and sometimes even shareholders, are urging people to be silent.”

According to Richard Edelman, global CEO of Edelman, a public relations firm, employees should be an important factor when executives consider whether to speak up. “Don’t do it because it’s good for the brand; do it because it’s good for retaining your best employees,” he said.

But marketers have yet to determine which reasons to use, Mr. Edelman said, citing issues such as systemic racism and sustainability as key reasons to engage, and topics such as gun legislation as riskier for corporations.

Companies that make the mistake of publishing a statement on social issues can find forgiveness with consumers and gain their trust more effectively than companies that do nothing at all, said Alyn Santos, director of brands and director of diversity and inclusion at consumer products company Unilever PLC.

“The key here is to be completely transparent,” Ms. Santos says. “If you’ve made a mistake, be transparent, admit your mistake – that’s the best way to move forward.”

The so-called termination culture, where companies are forced to sever ties with other parties for a variety of reasons, also regularly presents marketers with new dilemmas. Earlier this year, Citigroup Inc. made headlines when the investment bank decided not to include golfer Justin Thomas on its list of sponsors after he used an anti-gay expression under his breath while playing in a televised tournament. Another sponsor, Ralph Lauren Corp. severed ties with Mr. Thomas.

Although canceling Mr. Thomas would send a clear message to consumers, Citigroup decided to work with the athlete to use his platform to fight discrimination, said Carla Hassan, Citigroup’s chief marketing officer.

“In some ways, canceling someone or something can be a way to end a conversation that, frankly, should continue more productively,” Ms. Hassan said.

In an interview with the Golf Channel on the day of the tournament, Mr. Thomas apologized for using the word. “I’m very embarrassed,” he said. “That’s not who I am; that’s not the kind of person I am.”

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Out of the pandemic

Marketers are also working on the latest phase of the Covid-19 pandemic, trying to encourage vaccination and understand the changes it has made in consumer behavior.

The vaccination campaign, developed in part by Ad Council, a nonprofit organization that promotes advertising campaigns for various purposes, has gone into “hand-to-hand combat” mode to change the minds of those who are hesitant to get vaccinated, said Lisa Sherman, the group’s president and executive director.

After promoting messages with broader outreach at the beginning of the campaign, she said, the effort is becoming more targeted to better reach certain populations where hesitancy to vaccinate remains strong. While the strategy still relies on the use of proxies and community organizations, it now includes “much more surgical” targeted advertising, for example, Ms. Sherman said.

New consumer habits formed during the pandemic are likely to persist, according to a study presented by Michael J. Wolf, CEO of consulting firm Activate Inc.

People will continue to shop for clothing, food, cosmetics and personal care products online more often than they did before the pandemic, Mr. Wolf said, citing the study.

“They started shopping online during Covid-19, and they got hooked,” he said of e-commerce newcomers.

The good news for marketers who haven’t yet benefited is that during the pandemic, consumers tried online stores they hadn’t used before, and about two-thirds of them are still interested in trying new ones, Mr. Wolf said.

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