Edition Nº3

The Politics of Brand Performance

Dear Reader

To live in trying times is difficult on any given day.

However, when the searing fire of this turbulence does not ‘evenly roast all in the pot’ – then outrage erupts. For those of us who are located at the intersection of everyday erasure, racism and tone-deaf capitalism, the intensity of the disavowal can be near-crippling and soul-crushing. Sickened by brands gone rogue and their post-harm mea culpa, the opportunistic rage of sociopolitical movements, keyboard outrage and concomitant high-pitched tweets – the ‘woke’ take umbrage. Which is well and good - and then what?

In the haste to redeem themselves and publicly demonstrate remorse ( as though the public dance of remorse acts as a balm for the wounds slit open) – we have witnessed the race to ‘camera-light-action’ by brands that have offended too many times for any of these PR-centric stunts to impress or stick. The brand performance is for our benefit but not our healing. It is tilted in favour of the ‘performer’ – for, the attention is still on the offender and those offended to have to fight for acknowledgement, to be seen, to be validated, away from the glare of the glow-inducing lights. We’ve have seen this delinquency from across the globe – some brands so brazen as to become defiant, defensive, and downright nonchalant.

To think that in 2007 I wrote my MA thesis on this very topic, the politics of representation. and here we are a decade and a bit later, and brands in the hands of unconscious custodians continue to delight and offend in equal measure.

To be clear, advertising as the most powerful and ubiquitous marketing communication channel cannot chicken out with lame assertions that ‘it is not political, it is only creative’. Images are not neutral. They are potent. Imbued with energy and intention to affect identity and alter behaviour. So this is not the time for brands to be demure and/or be defensive. They have to be woken from their slumber and demoted from the pedagogic heights they have assumed (unchallenged) over time.

The bit that infuriates me – as an inter-sectional brand strategist and communication sociologist - is that these offending brands are changing tact because they have been caught - not because like the biblical Saul, they have found their conversion on the marketing equivalent ‘road to Damascus’. This is not a willing walk to the Catholic confessional. What we are being fed by Clicks, Unilever, Quaker Oats and others, is done to stamp out the flames in the street, to protect brick and mortar, not to quell the fires raging in the hearts of the offended. The only way to ensure this change lasts is for all parties in the creative process to be held accountable. The clients and creative partners alike. However, there is no doubt that the big buck does stop with the brand owner – who at times (I know this from practice) may be deaf to the input of conscious creative partners.
Unilever Fair And Lovely
It is heart-warming to see Unilever discontinue skin lightening cream in India and Quaker Oats change Aunt Jemima brands and the band, Lady Antebellum also undergo a name change and then go on to display entitlement and disrespect against a Black artist who goes by their new chosen name At the top of the curve of #BLM, Pepsi pedalled a reality star -turned model as an ambassador for the movement, discounting her privilege and as a total misfit and then said sorry.
Gucci did not miss the party with its blackface ad and hasty faux apology. By mocking Chinese culture, D&G not only demonstrated its hatred but shortsightedness as the Chinese consumer is a key contributor to their bottom line. Chanel was also not immune to such bigotry, and a sore-point in South Africa to this day, is H&M’s monkey in the hood assault.

On the other side, we witness a plethora of big brands that ‘steal’ the creative IP of black creatives and when caught, also feign surprise or claim creative coincidence. For example Zara and the Laduma brand. If a black creative’s work is not good enough to be stocked on the shelves and in stores in rarefied communities, then why the theft? One can only deduce that the corporate behaviour is capitalist abuse – to ‘take’ without consult, permission and/or compensation is a practice that must stop. To then also borrow from the pained past of black lives for commercial gain should attract the disdain of the world – instead, people paid and moved on. I believe that the reckless appropriation of black culture deserves more than outrage from those consumers who are black. Perhaps it is time we stopped keeping count and started raging without our spending power. Where are the black shareholders of this business, where are the black non-exec directors?

All of this and more, brings to mind, the mighty James Baldwin who, (speaking of America) said: “To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a state of rage almost, almost all of the time”. Ditto, for South Africa. Exhausting as it can be to fight the fight on every corner, the intersectionality of the black person’s oppression leaves us no alternative but to lug fire trucks on our backs.
To Be A Negro
So, as one who dislikes the practice of admiring or describing problems ad infinitum - I offer the following as interventions worth exploring:

  1. When a brand falters, the CEO must march to the front: The CEO, not PR must lead the mea-culpa journey.
  2. We have two ears for a reason: Do not grand-stand or defend, listen more and speak less (if at all).
  3. Don’t throw your team under the bus: As CEO/Exec, do not fire the junior – fix the organisational culture.
  4. Discrimination has deep roots: The tendency for rogue brands to offend and then hire a Diversity Officer is plaster on a gangrenous wound. These offences (not mistakes as others call them) are not about ‘diversity training ‘( once-off) – they require excavation and conscientization (life-long). For example, Clicks has removed the offensive hair care product from their shelves yet still sells the carcinogenic Johnson & Johnson talc powder which disproportionately affects more black females as they tend to be more frequent adult users.
  5. Don’t just pain a house with a weak foundation: Do not apply PR-able amendments, effect lasting changes even if this means stopping the train, to truly look into your organisation and bias-test every node of your business (for example, recruitment and reward practices, procurement, supply chain, board appointments, etc).
  6. Quick fixes are twice the trouble: Do not do the easy fixes (R10 000 donation of sanitary towels, a cheque to an impoverished school, etc) - unlock the core of discrimination and bias that is baked into your business.
  7. We lead how we are: This is a time for ethical leadership, your values shine through your business. Serve Humans: After all, we are consumers some of the times and are humans all of the time. Stop selling (to consumers) and start serving (humans).
  8. What’s your purpose? Articulate and/or review your brand’s purpose. If your guiding light and north star is devoid of substance and social impact, then go back to the drawing board.
  9. Don’t be cheap – be sincere: diversity isn’t a tag on to HR’s role, find and invest in specialists to craft an informed and enlightened pathway to your business sustainability and success
  10. Corporate Citizenship is more than just 67 Blankets for Mandela Day and signing checks to support social causes. It is about ensuring that your enterprise pivots on consciousness every moment, especially when no one is watching.
  11. Then the big bang: for the listed companies in South Africa, the Stock Exchange could create an Ethics Exchange and dock points from delinquent and harmful businesses/brands. Do not fine them, lower their BEE levels and limit chances of procuring from the government ( often the big spender in most territories) – only then will we see proper and true change.
I submit this piece with the aspiration of elevating thinking. However outraged and offended, we limit our impact when we adopt violence as the official language to relay dismay and offence. Yes, it seeps from years of bottled frustration, but how does it get us to the mountain top?

South Africa has a glowing constitution – referenced by many across the world as the thing to learn from. A cornerstone of this constitution is the premise that South Africa belongs to all who live in it. It gives credence to Nelson Mandela who said, among many other wisdoms, that “Never, never and never again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another”. Brand leaders and owners are not exempt from this duty of not causing offence or harm, they must be the standard-bearers, and when they default to opportunistic capitalism, let the spirit of the Constitution nudge them back to life.

Let’s all educate ourselves and each other. Thankfully ignorance is curable.


What's on my mind this month

  1. In my ear: Herbie Hancock - Imagination Project


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