Anti-brands activism: How marketing teams can walk the tightrope safely

Regardless of businesses’ decision to stay silent or to engage on societal issues, the survey notes, digital chatter will continue.

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A new wave of digital activism is sweeping across Kenya opening a new frontier of reputational scrutiny targeting business brands.

Recently, a telco was forced to defend itself against claims it had throttled down internet connection to frustrate anti-government protests.

A few days later, when a politician who had expressed unpopular economic views reported to be in talks with a menstrual hygiene products maker to supply free tampons to schools, it quicky released a statement denying the claims.

In both cases, the businesses had to stomach negative profiling with Kenyan netizens going to the extremes of calling for their total boycott.

Analysts say brands will increasingly be caught in the struggle between the citizenry and their governance authorities and knowing how best to navigate the minefield is crucial to their survival.

“Online activism can be very unpredictable and can start a potentially open-ended conversation to which activists can return to again and again,” says online marketing strategist Shalom Njogu.

Tough choices

Commercial entities face tough choices as they aspire to strike a delicate balance between retaining neutrality in the oft social-political discourses and displaying solidarity with the digital activists who form a significant customer base.

Brands whose conduct appear to be aligned with the activists' cause have been bagging quick online marketing wins, although data remains scanty on whether the frenzy translates into sales conversions.

The activists

A report published by US-based USC Annenberg School of Journalism notes that activist demands on businesses and their employees are chiefly driven by the Generation Z (Gen Z) segment of the world population who have emerged as the most vocal group in new-age agitations.

“As the largest segment of the global population (32 percent), four out of five Gen Z consumers consider social responsibility as very important,” reads the report.

But does the phenomenon harbour sufficient power to critically injure a brand’s reputation and eventually bring down a business establishment?

According to Canadian market research firm Resolver, nearly a third of consumers have boycotted a brand as a result of a celebrity, influencer or spokesperson associated with that brand taking a stance on a societal issue on social media.

Why CEOs are worried

“Communications teams aren’t alone in their concerns about the dangers of the deep web and digital chatter. More than three-fourths (77 percent) of CEOs agree more companies will be targeted by organised groups online intent on damaging their brand in the next year,” states Resolver in its latest Corporate Leaders Risk Survey.

Regardless of businesses’ decision to stay silent or to engage on societal issues, the survey notes, digital chatter will continue.

“Savvy communications teams are learning the importance of leveraging digital chatter as an asset to protect brand reputation. Whether a brand engages on societal issues or doesn’t, consumers will have an opinion,” notes Resolver.

“It’s this digital chatter that can provide essential risk intelligence to mitigate the harm of agenda-driven groups and bad actors intent on inflicting harm.”

Can brands escape unscathed?

Staying proactive

Experts recommend a raft of measures for businesses to escape the noose, key among which includes adopting a proactive approach that ensures the brand always stays ahead of the game before being taken to task.

“Businesses need to be much more in tune with the conversations that their audiences are having. It is to be sensitive to their causes,” asserts Ms Njogu.

According to her, the primary question that should always ring in the management’s minds is on the worst scenario that could happen to their company on social media and whether they would be ready to deal with it.

“It’s critical that companies are proactive when problems arise to explain, apologise, repair the damage and rebuild trust on the premise that a problem will not reoccur,” she adds.

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