Addressing the elephant in the room: How should brands tackle sensitive subjects?

Brexit. Donald Trump. The government response to the Covid-19 pandemic. These are all current subjects that you’d probably only discuss with family and friends if you were ready for a heated debate, a couple of passive aggressive comments followed by that inevitable awkwardness when the Zoom goes silent as you conclude that, actually, you’re never going to change your great uncle John’s views on immigration.

Avoiding sensitive subjects is something that both humans and brands are guilty of. Sometimes it’s easier to look past our problems or put them to one side while we concentrate on the more pressing and less stressful issues we face in everyday life. Although we may know that this is not the right way to deal with these tricky subjects, we hope that if we ignore them for long enough, they will eventually just go away, and sometimes, if we’re lucky, they do. For brands, sometimes tackling sensitive subjects isn’t the answer and in many cases it can be better if they steer clear.

In business, if you’re marketing a brand for a service or product that relates to a sensitive subject then there’s no avoiding the elephant in the room – brands will have to tackle the topic head on. However, when it comes to politics, religion and other controversial issues that don’t directly relate to a business or organisation, how and if they respond is crucial in ensuring fans and customers don’t feel alienated.

Often, it’s the way a brand deals with a subject that sets them apart from others. After all, venturing down avenues none have explored before and adopting fresh approaches is what marketing is all about, right?!

So how can brands tackle sensitive subjects? Knowing which issues to avoid and which issues to hone in on can have a real impact in the world of marketing.

Brexit, for example

Still a prominent issue affecting the lives of Brits and citizens across the world, Brexit has been practically inescapable since the June 2016 referendum. Before anyone had heard of coronavirus, Brexit was the buzzword dominating news headlines and public discussion.

In the run up to the referendum, some brands went as far as using their position within the market to influence the decisions of voters. JD Wetherspoon chairman Tim Martin decided to launch a pro-Leave campaign which saw him distribute 500,000 beer mats in Wetherspoon establishments across the country urging pub-goers to ‘take back control’ and Leave the European Union (EU).

Was this the best marketing strategy in tackling the controversial Brexit vote? While the chain’s political campaign didn’t see a fall in the numbers of people visiting the pub for a pint, the immediate aftermath of the Brexit decision saw millions wiped off the value of the chairman’s shareholding. The motive behind it all? Well that would be money of course.

Staying out of it all

Traditionally, when it comes to sensitive subjects, brands are advised to stay out of things. By having an agenda or certain opinion, they can run the risk of losing a significant portion of their customers.

Taylor Swift Inc – a multi-million dollar entity – is completely unrelated to US politics. The pop star’s fans just want good music, regular tour dates and exciting music videos, right? Wrong. While in the past the singer has been vocal about supporting young women in the music industry and is seen by her fans as a feminist icon, when it came to the 2016 US election, Taylor seemed to fall off the face of the earth. And her absence here was noted, which might go some way to explaining why she has recently taken a more vocal stance on issues like sexism, inequality and the Trump administration.

More than ever before, celebrities, actors, models, politicians, TV stars and those with a strong social media following are using their position to influence fans, even if it puts their brand at risk. We are transforming into a society where honesty and opinion is expected of celebrities, and a failure to speak out can raise suspicion.

A millennial way of thinking

Research has shown an increasing number of people want to be employed by organisations that have a positive impact on the world, and this is no different for consumers. Many millennials would reportedly accept a pay cut to work for an environmentally responsible company.

And more than half of consumers would pay more for sustainable products that are specifically designed to be reused or recycled.

As millennials and Generation Z exert more influence over the market, brands now need to think not only about their product or service, but the beliefs and values behind it, too. Younger consumers want companies to be invested in a better society by prioritising the world around them and doing their bit to help.

Be honest

Younger generations also have a focus on companies being open and honest about their efforts. As clichéd as it sounds, honesty really is the best policy, especially when it comes to marketing. Campaigns that feature off-the-cuff, genuine commentary can gain customers’ trust and will certainly get them interested in a brand.

In every walk of life, people appreciate honesty, and that applies just as much to brands and businesses as it does to individuals.

Sugar-coating a particular issue can have a negative impact on the customer if things don’t play out the way your company suggested it would, and in turn your brand could lose credibility.

Yet despite this, it’s important to remember that there’s no ‘correct’ way to tackle a sensitive subject. Each campaign should be treated uniquely. As times change, so does your audience, but putting yourself in the shoes of whoever is reading or coming into contact with your campaign is certainly a good place to start.

Need help with the key messaging that defines your brand? We’re here to help.

Need some more information on content marketing? Check out our content marketing page for everything you need to know.