brands crisis ukraine russia

The obligation of brands to speak out in times of crisis and beyond

Now that Russia has aggressively invaded Ukraine, and the UN sanctioned the country, brands are retrieving from Russian soil. Some for the safety of their employees, others because they were forced to or couldn’t do their jobs anymore and some speak out against Putin’s Personal Pride to regain a former piece of the Soviet Union.

This is all big news in our western world. But are brands doing enough to speak up? Can’t brands do more than making statements by closing their business in this area? Big ones, sure. But what if brands used their power to speak through their created distribution funnels? Russia is doing everything to stop anyone from spreading information other then prescribed by the Kremlin. And with the withdrawal of free journalism, social media and maybe even YouTube it is very hard for Russians to gain different angles of information. But I have hope that this problem can be solved. By the free world of brands.  

It has been done before: Nike and Black Lives Matter

A great example of a brand that really speaks out and shows us another side of our so-called civil world is Nike. Old news, but unfortunately still very relevant. In 2016, Colin Kaepernick, American football player protested on the field against police violence towards black people by kneeling instead of standing up with the national anthem. They say that was the end of his football career. But Nike understood; this was the time to start the discussion about violence against black people. A new campaign with Kaepernick as the main character was born.

A lot of people loved it, but it also gained a lot of angry reactions and people shared videos of themselves burning their Nike shoes. Nike stood out. They made a choice. And it was more than just a campaign. They merged politics and sports into one conversation. And they still are. It is brilliantly documented in HBO’s The Day Sports Stood Still. A documentary co-produced by Nike, that started with Covid laying down all sports. But during the filming of this documentary George Floyd was killed by police violence and the Black Lives Matter movement started. This also resulted in NBA-teams refusing to play even though they could again, just to make a statement. They added politics to sports. And Nike not only supports that, they made it part of their story.

Another example: Red Bull’s empowering stories

We all know Red Bull too. The energy drink with a clear proposition: Giving wings to people and ideas. Which means that it provides skills, abilities, power etc. to achieve whatever you want to. “It is an invitation as well as a request to be active, performance-oriented, alert, and to take challenges,” according to co-founder Dietrich Mateschitz. They are showing this through extreme sports and challenges. I guess many of you have seen Max Verstappen become world champion with Red Bull Racing, but that is only the tip of the iceberg of their stories.

Red Bull Media House is a production agency that produces all those stories, and these stories reach far. For example, in this recent documentary series: The Way Of The Wildcard, they follow Mira Rai, a girl from Nepal who became a trail runner. She inspires young girls from poor countries, who have no examples in their close area who tell them they can achieve more than the road they are meant to walk. That is one of the main messages in all Red Bull’s stories. If you want to achieve something, take on the challenge, and you can achieve it.

Brands are global democracies

If you think about the power that these brands have, you realize that they can influence social issues like Nike did. And that they inspire people to go after their dreams, to stand out, like Red Bull does. Then maybe we should encourage more brands to be more outspoken. And to do more than just leave Russia.

Let’s take just a few examples. How many subscribers are there in Russia to the H&M newsletter? How many Russians have downloaded the Ikea-app or the McDonalds app? How many brands have a direct, first party, connection to Russian audiences? Brands are global democracies, without geographical boundaries.

I don’t know how brands can speak to Russian audiences at this moment, after the conflict and the disinformation have started, but the point is that brands have access to people. People who choose to give them access. If you live in a democracy, you think you only get to choose once every four years, but you’re wrong. You make choices on social issues every day. By buying fair trade coffee at the supermarket, applying for jobs at companies who act on sustainable development goals, choosing a bank that does not invest in weapons etc. Now that brands must speak up, what are they about? Let’s see their stories and actions.

I believe brands can’t play safe anymore. There are too many issues we must solve. The war in Ukraine being one of them. Pandemics, climate change, hunger, repression, violence, racism… Let’s put some responsibility on brands. People get to choose what they stand for, what they believe in, by identifying with the brands they wear, buy or just by following them. People can change the world. And brands can fire start it.

Carlijn Postma is Founder of the content marketing agency The Post, speaker, author of “Binge Marketing”, and winner of Content Marketing Woman of the Year in 2017. She will be debating about brands’ obligation to speak out on March 31, at WeContent Days, a satellite event of WeContent. Carlijn will also be on stage at WeContent Festival 2022 and she will be teaching a masterclass on How to create a sustainable content marketing strategy.

Main photo by Derek French from Pexels


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