Is there a risk for brands taking part in the Facebook ad boycott?

Any brands taking part are likely to take a hit to their visibility and sales. But with "purpose" gaining importance, is it a risk worth taking?
12 August 2020
facebook ad boycott
mark chamberlain

Managing Director, Brand, Insights Division, UK

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Brand purpose has long been one of those misunderstood and misused terms. But, at a time when brands are judged more than ever by their actions, purpose has never been more important.

Take the Facebook advertising boycott, which took place throughout July. This one campaign has certainly brought brand purpose sharply into focus. The boycott has been picking up momentum over recent weeks, triggered by the #StopHateforProfit campaign calling on businesses to pull advertising spend from Facebook in protest over its content policies.

Within a matter of days, hundreds of companies had joined the movement, pulling millions in ad revenues from the social media platform and more have joined since, garnering plenty of headlines along the way. While many smaller companies participated, it’s the big name brands that dominated the news, from Coca-Cola and Ford to telecoms leader Verizon and consumer goods giant, Unilever.

The COVID-19 pandemic has already put pressure on ad revenues and this boycott is adding fuel to the fire for Facebook. While some estimates put the potential in lost ad income at around 1% of its quarterly revenues, the potential impact could be so much bigger than a simple drop in ad spend. The question now is whether this is the start of a long-term decline for Facebook and for other social media providers?

But for the brands taking part in the boycott, is there also a risk? This campaign could be a dangerous move if it is not consistent with a company’s values and behaviours. Jumping on the boycott bandwagon has the potential to backfire if it’s seen as a knee-jerk reaction to the #StopHateforProfit campaign, rather than as part of a long-term strategy.

Brands today matter more than ever; they can be a powerful force for good. They have the ability to make a difference and we expect them to use this power in a positive way. So brands taking a stance against issues that matter and making people’s lives better should be congratulated. But they will be judged on the consistency of the actions they take.

Consumers are more discerning and choose to buy products and services from brands that share their values and beliefs. In short, they buy from brands that serve the greater good. Certainly many brands will have felt a growing pressure from their customers to take part in the boycott. To be seen not to do something in the face of such a powerful global movement could also be a problem of course.

So where does brand purpose fit into all of this? Purpose provides certainty for both the company and for consumers; a shared understanding of what the brand is there for. It’s not part of building a brand; it is the start of building a brand!

Purpose-led companies can make a huge difference in the world. Being purpose-led can also be a key driver of brand value growth, as our analysis of the BrandZ Top 100 Most Valuable Brands indicates. Over a 12-year period, from 2006 to 2018, value growth among brands with a high Brand Purpose Index was more than double that of those with average or lower association.

Having a clear brand purpose, from which all decisions can flow, is vital. A brand does not need to be everything to everyone. It needs to understand what is important to its consumers and which purpose goal it can credibly strive for. A brand purpose must then be lived and breathed across everything a brand does and brought to life in a way that is consistent with the brand’s positioning and personality.

For some, the announcement to join the boycott is consistent with their brand purpose and the way they would be expected to behave. For others, less so! For those brands, it’s important to be careful about making decisions that are seen as inconsistent and that people may judge as hypocritical. Plus, such decisions could potentially damage the brand in the longer term.

As the official boycott period comes to an end, it will be interesting to see how things play out. Any brands taking part in the boycott are likely to see an initial decline in their visibility, associations and purchase intent, so they need to be committed to making consumers’ lives better in a way that is compelling, consistent and uniquely brought to life. That’s the point at which brands will realise a purpose pay-off.

This piece was also published on WARC and New Digital Age.

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