How The Explosive Social Issues Of Race, Reform Are Pushing Brands Into New Digital Territory

Written by Lauren DeLisa Coleman

Today, even the most casual conversations now contain a deep infusion of socio-political perspective and, often times, heated passion.

People previously uninterested politics and social issues are now reading POLITICO and The Hill right alongside their favorite business, beauty and sports publications. This information flow is then wildly accelerated by the digital echo-chambers of various tech platforms that then absorbs the collective thought, mashes it up, promotes it, deconstructs it, and creates a veritable never-ending cycle of exchange between a variety of new and effervescent subcultures and voices on the current state of the United States.

Diversity. Immigration. Sexual harassment. Racism. Climate Change. No one is safe, and anyone or thing can become the day’s hottest digital target in a flash.

Everyone and everything is being held to a new standard of social scrutiny — particularly the wealthy, powerful corporation. And this alert and watchful eye is championed in large part, though not exclusively, by today’s very vocal Millennial.

Welcome to America 2.0 where nearly every company now finds itself navigating a tricky space fraught with landmines and/or laurels as it is pushed by consumers/citizens into the once taboo area of trying to organically align with social change while pushing products in one of the biggest markets on earth.

Brands into new digital territory: how we got here

Around the globe, people are putting their personal convictions front and center, but for this piece, we’ll focus on the good ol’ U.S. From immigration to the NFL to healthcare to the latest entertainment award shows, and much more, positions are boldly being taken. This mindset extends more and more deeply into lifestyle which is beginning to permeate consumerism in a powerful manner.

In fact, a new study from public relations giant Edelman states, “From the grocery aisle to the car dealership, consumers are now buying on belief. And this belief is shared and amplified due to digital platforms.”

As a result, brands of all kinds and sizes are now forced to navigate a startling, new reality. Indeed, the Edelman study reveals that 48 percent of individual respondents will now actually advocate for a brand, defend it and criticize a competitor for a brand that takes a stand on an issue. Conversely, the study says that consumers will switch from a brand, avoid it or boycott it depending upon brand stance on a controversial issue, according to the study. Call it the belief-driven consumer, and Millennials, who are everywhere, are the top quartile earners of the consuming pack.

 The challenge is that the long-held rulebook has been completely thrown out the window, and then some. Explains Mark Renshaw, global chair of brand practice at Edelman. “To complicate matters, tech platforms have contributed to the shortening of the news cycle. Ultimately, this has given brands less time to prepare for issues and boycotts when they are drawn in – willingly or not – to the social and cultural narrative. It means that brands must be more prepared than ever to know where they stand on issues.”

Disruption collides with commerce

Indeed, somehow the cultural climate has completely shifted, giving rise to new voices, hypersensitivity, and much disruption. Because brands are such a prominent part of an American capitalist society, they are completely enveloped in this phenomenon yet many didn’t seem to get the memo. In fact, a recent article in Inc. indicates that brands now live somewhat in conversations to the extent that people can and do connect with each other often times by talking about a particular brand’s stance and activities. The goal, however, is to be on the positive side of the conversation, which past campaigns show is not always easy.

brands into new digital territory

In fact, the heat is becoming so intense around this cultural trend that the subject matter was a prominent theme during the recent New York Advertising Week. To supplement the live panel discussions around the topic, an article by writer Jacob Gedetsis entitled “Help Them Change The World” (which appeared in the daily conference magazine) noted quite simply that we are experiencing this new, disruptive shift in society in large part because Millennials want to change the world.

“They are passionate about issues and don’t know how to make impact. Brands show them the way,” notes Gedetsis. The article goes on to note that the prominent social good tech company DoSomething has been enlisted by top brands believing this premise. The organization has been lauded for its laser-focus on turning inaction into engagement and, during the process, interweaving the right brand with the right social issue. When executed effectively, the formula seems to be a Millennial magnet for making brands more likable.


About Lauren DeLisa Coleman

Lauren DeLisa Coleman is a digi-cultural trend analyst, author and strategist. Her expertise is deciphering and forecasting power trends, public sentiment within the convergence of pop culture, millennials & emerging tech behavior and analyzing the impact on business, governance. Her sub-specialty is diverse demos, and she is a contributor to media outlets from Forbes to Campaigns & Elections, as well as a guest commentator on MSNBC. As an entrepreneur, she has provided strategic intelligence on projects from Snoop Dogg to Microsoft execs to public policy leaders. She heads Lnk Agency, a hot trend consulting & multimedia company. Her latest e-book is "Americas Most Wanted: The Millennial." You can read her Forbes contributions here:
You can read her Inc column here: @ultra_Lauren