Carmen Rodriguez, Partner and Chief Client Officer of GUT, looks at polarization in Brazil from an unusual stance. A Brazilian native, she currently resides in the US and has familiarity with how the brand response to taking a stance is playing out in both countries.

This article is part of the August 2021 Spotlight Brazil series, "A close look at LATAM's largest market." Read more

With the rise of political polarization in the past few years, brands all over the world have had a difficult decision to make: whether or not to take a stance. Companies used to prefer to abstain from “getting political,” but the fact is that most controversial issues have entered the political realm. Further, consumers are questioning what brands they choose to spend money on, beyond what their products provide. Consumers want to know what a brand's views are.

Though I’m originally from Brazil (but currently work in the US), I’m familiar with how this is playing out in both cultures. In the US market, even the more traditionally apolitical brands such as Walmart have taken action. For example, the company has stopped selling certain types of firearms, such as handguns, along with ammunition for military-style rifles, and also now prohibits customers from open carry of guns in its stores, even in states that permit it.

Meanwhile, a lot of companies are being very explicit about their views – and their actions – on subjects such as climate change, women’s equality, and immigration. Unilever, for instance, which wants to be carbon negative by 2030, said last month that it was planning to add carbon footprint labels to as many as two dozen products by the end of 2021. One reason cited by the company was to meet the demands of younger consumers, for whom climate change is a particularly major issue.

In the US, dozens of major brands have signed onto initiatives to stop the progress of voter suppression laws, and halted spending to politicians who voted against certifying the presidential vote on January 6, the day of the insurrection at the US Capitol. There is a lot of pressure from the public for certain brands to speak up – and to back down. When it was revealed in June that Toyota had given more ($55,000) to candidates who had objected to the certification of the vote than any other major corporation, the brand initially stood by its contributions. It backed down weeks later under pressure from consumers and a prominent anti-President Trump political action committee, The Lincoln Project.

Brands like Patagonia, which have a long history of committing to advocating for environmental issues, know the truth: that it is possible to see great results in sales and consumer engagement by being vocal on major issues. The just-released annual Axios Harris poll of corporate reputation ranked the outdoor wear company #1 (up 31 spots from last year), ranking the brand above even current “it” brands such as Moderna and SpaceX. An initiative by Budweiser, which I was personally involved with, committed to donating water to disaster relief programs using part of their brewery facilities to produce clean drinking water. Consumers prefer to give their money to brands that are aligned with their values.

I believe that this movement is starting to get stronger in Brazil. For instance, brands like Skol beer and the online marketplace Mercado Libre are very vocal in advocating for LGBTQIA+ and diversity initiatives, among others. In 2018, Skol created a limited edition set of six different of skin-colored cans as part of a commitment to celebrating diversity. The brand has also embraced initiatives including "Reposter", calling upon eight illustrators to rethink old Skol posters that had served to objectify women.

The Sao Paulo office of GUT launched a campaign for Mercado Libre in June to celebrate Pride Month that reimagined imagery of iconic kisses using same-sex couples, making the images free for download.

Surely, taking a stand isn’t easy for brands, and backlash, if not inevitable, is common. For instance, when the Brazilian retailer Magazine Luiza announced its 2021 trainee program would only be open to Blacks and people of mixed race, it faced a lawsuit from the Brazil public defender’s office, claiming discrimination. And it may be harder to take a stance in a very conservative country like Brazil, where there was even a recent (failed) attempt to ban LGBTQIA+ imagery from advertising.

One of the key lessons for brands deciding to take a stance is to walk the talk. Consumers are not interested in marketing stunts. It has to be real. It needs to make sense with the brand’s history. It needs to be authentic. And above all, it needs to be a true commitment. Consumers are looking very closely at brands that take advantage of issues just to get attention. The brands must be truthful and prepared to withstand the scrutiny of the public eye.