A version of this appeared in MediaPost’s Marketing Daily. The last week of June marked an incredible turn of events in the United States, with the Supreme Court decision legalizing gay marriage and a massive surge of support for sweeping away the Confederate flag.
In all the celebration, and amidst all the noise, it was perhaps easy to overlook that American brands just entered a new chapter, one of full citizenship on social causes.
By the week’s end there was no longer any doubt that being a national or global brand means being ready to take an active role in the national discourse. Gone are the days of staying silent or taking milquetoast stances for fear of alienating a portion of the customer base.
The week of this transformation began with a debate few would have predicted. Five days after nine people were killed in a Charleston church by a racist gunman, Walmart announced the removal of Confederate-themed merchandise from its shelves. The retail giant said in a statement, “We never want to offend anyone with the products that we offer.”
Amazon.com, eBay, Sears and Etsy soon followed, pulling the imagery from their inventory. Simultaneously, a flurry of pronouncements came from state legislatures across the South that long-revered flags would come down.
“Walmart and Amazon are behemoths. When they make a move like this, it is going to affect the national conversation,” said Margaret Duffy, Chair of the Strategic Communication Program at University of Missouri’s School of Journalism. Their actions can be attributed, in part, to calculations of what the backlash would be if they were caught up in a controversy, she said.
“But the calculations are only part of what’s happening,” Duffy said. “If you’re in marketing you are radically in the culture business. If you’re going to be any good you have to understand that.”