What Role Should Brands Play in a Global Crisis? | Industry Insights | All MKC Content | ANA

What Role Should Brands Play in a Global Crisis?

Is marketing’s role in society equally important as its role in business?


Once upon a time, brands and politics didn't mix... or at least some topics were considered taboo by most organizations. The rise of social media, the constant expression of personal opinions, the speed at which misinformation flows, corporate interest in customer values, and even commitments to purpose, have changed how many brands communicate in a post-COVID world.

Yet, when complex geopolitical issues intensify and combine with entrenched and often fiery viewpoints, it can become challenging for many products, services, or companies to serve the best interests of all their stakeholders.

Between October 16 and 26, 2023, following the Hamas attack on Israel on October 7, The Internationalist, through its INSIGHTS Survey division, asked its worldwide community of marketers how brands should respond to a global crisis. While marketers are certainly "divided" in their answers regarding whether "brands should officially express support or denounce acts of war or terrorism," they are not necessarily "polarized" into uncompromising positions.

During a true global crisis, like war or acts of terrorism, should brands officially express support, or denounce, specific events or a situation?

  • 51.4 percent said - YES... We live in a world where brand values matter to all stakeholders, especially customers, and this is an extension of being a responsible brand.

  • 48.6 percent said NO... Brands should simply focus on providing products and services that people rely upon. Some topics should be left to world leaders or those responsible for national security.

So, while people appeared to be essentially split on whether brands should express support or denounce specific events, numerous write-in comments captured critical nuances to a simple "yes or no" answer:

"Brands have power and influence over people's lives, whether they like it or not. It is important that brands understand how they can use that power for the good of the people they serve. Government and non-profits can't do it alone; it takes a community."

"When issues directly impact your stakeholders, those stakeholders expect support and transparency. Silence is a statement."

"If brands (companies) truly care about stakeholders (employees, shareholders, and suppliers), then they need to care and be clear on their perspective. The challenge: logic no longer applies when emotion takes over and people are divisive and political."

"Any expression needs to be handled in a thoughtful, nuanced way and be authentic."

"There really isn't a one-size-fits all answer. There can be exceptions to supporting or denouncing, perhaps when the company has employees or clients in impacted regions."

"Brands in global crises should show empathy but avoid exploiting it for marketing purposes."

"Just because a company has an audience and a platform to make a statement doesn't mean they must weigh in; simply said, just because you can, doesn't mean you should. Brands should support their employees and ecosystems if a connection exists."

"The public should not impose brands to take a position for everything, especially for single specific acts."

"For 95 percent of all brands, they should stay away from these types of conflicts. The exception are brands that were built on activism and social causes (i.e., Ben and Jerry's)."

The next question looked at specific actions during a crisis, and respondents could choose multiple options. Clearly, employee safety and regular communications headed the list with big majorities—89 percent and 86 percent respectively. So, regardless of whether a respondent believes in expressing brand support in a crisis or not, nearly all saw the value of focusing on employee safety in affected areas and regularly communicating internally on staff safety or policy decisions.

Perhaps most interesting is that a brand or company's stated purpose was seen as being more significant in determining actions in a crisis than employee or customer perspectives. This solidifies the seriousness to which purpose has risen within the corporation as a foundation for decision making.

Marketing leaders are now tasked with expanded responsibilities of extraordinary complexity and greater accountability. In addition to the current emphasis on corporate purpose, sustainable solutions, and shifting opinions regarding ESG standards, today's marketers must champion consumer trust, provide unparalleled brand experiences, lead data strategy, rally employees throughout the globe, continually demonstrate significant return on investment — and accomplish it all faster. However, many business leaders are now suggesting that the C-suite may be experiencing "crisis fatigue" – even when terrorism, war and human suffering should conceivably be met with a sense of moral clarity.

Corporate culture and brand values are certainly more difficult to foster when society is divided. However, marketers, at least in terms of their response to a survey on global crises, seem to be level-headed about their roles.

The views and opinions expressed are solely those of the contributor and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the ANA or imply endorsement from the ANA.

Deborah Malone is the founder of The Internationalist.