Brands that on the one hand support DE&I are being undermined when their ads appear in media outlets that incite hateful and discriminatory comments of underrepresented communities. To fix this credibility gap, brands must be accountable for their media investment choices, and publicly take a stand against problematic media, argues Vicky French, Global Brand Marketer at Hewlett Packard Enterprise.

It’s no surprise that over the last year there’s been an increase in urgency for brands to address societal issues (according to The Edelman Trust Barometer, 2021). Also unsurprisingly, Kantar found that GenZ and Millenials have the highest expectations when it comes to brand values. Plus, overall, 54% of consumers expect brands to take an active role in social conversations like #MeToo and racial injustices. The alarming part is that Gen Z does not trust businesses to act in the best interest of society by a 5-to-1 margin and 24% can’t name a brand they consider to be purposeful. Pretty scary when you look at the amount of ‘purpose-led’ marketing that is out in the world, even scarier when you think Gen Z are the purchasers of today and tomorrow – ultimately impacting everyone’s bottom line.

Why are brands failing?

It’s obvious that people want brands to do better, and it’s obvious that brands are trying to do better by running campaigns that are purpose oriented. However: most brands aren’t using this to drive change, they’re using it to drive revenue, jumping on the bandwagon of the issue people currently care most about. This isn’t just my opinion either – in a survey, 61% of people said they thought brands were using societal issues as a marketing ploy, likely due to the lack of consistency between actions and values. It is this brand dissonance that causes customers to lose trust and loyalty, and when this happens revenue declines. Consumers need to see actions congruent with values.   

Your media plan can help.

Media strategy is one place to start when it comes to holding yourself accountable. It’s an area of direct control and isn’t reliant on external factors. It’s a chance for businesses to consciously fund the good and defund the bad. 

Even today, there are prominent news brands that are renowned for inciting hateful and discriminative comments derogatory to underrepresented communities – and some of the world’s biggest brands can be seen advertising there. Does your company really want to make a difference if it’s keeping these types of media outlets in business? Was your social media post in support of the Black Lives Matter movement really just an empty, performative stunt attempting to be seen as culturally in-tune? Hint: the answer is yes, if you’re directly funding media outlets that fuel dangerous narratives.

It can be easy to turn a blind-eye when it comes to the role of media buying in driving societal change – especially for brands using an agency to manage their media spend. Whilst many advertising teams will insist on implementing brand safety measures – vetoing topics and keywords that might be inappropriate – this usually only eliminates specific pieces of content, not the publication allowing this content to live on. Brands need to take a more active role in analysing the integrity of publications on the ‘yes list’, ensuring the moral and ethical standards are congruent with their own. If you don’t know which publications are included within your native or programmatic display strategies, I suggest you check now and remove those that don’t match your brand values. 

Agencies also need to push a conscious agenda – I’m tired of seeing senior leaders from the biggest advertising agencies talk about conscious media planning in the public eye, yet have teams recommending tabloid placements because they perform well. It’s just another case of money over morals. 

Short term loss for long term gain.

I can almost hear the sharp intake of breath from media planners knowing that these publications could well be highest performers in terms of both awareness and conversion metrics. The implication of this is that, at least in the short term, your media is going to be less efficient. It’s likely you’ll see increases in cost-per(s), a decline in volume of impressions and potentially lower conversion rates. These are short term problems.

The Kantar BrandZ Global Top 100 study highlighted that the “faster-growing brands are perceived as much more socially and environmentally responsible than low growth and declining brands”. The result of not aligning to important issues will cause a decline in brand credibility, alienation of customers and decline of business growth. Brands and agencies need to publicly stand with their competitors against problematic media. There needs to be a strong communication strategy to support the decision, demonstrating action in support with brand values, without fear of backlash. 

It’s not all doom and gloom.

Don’t just look at what to take out of your media plan, look at what you can put in. There is a unique opportunity within media to fund publications that are intrinsically purpose-led and intent on making a difference; through actively leveraging publications that provide representation for otherwise under-represented communities. A good example is in Channel 4’s recent Black to Front project – demonstrating how a company can challenge the lack of representation of Black people within the mainstream media. Channel 4’s commitment to challenging the status-quo isn’t new: back in 2012 they secured a winning bid for the London Paralympics and produced a now-ongoing late night chat show that has helped to both increase disabled representation and reduce stigma associated with being disabled.

This is one illustration of the role of the media in driving change. There are not as many good examples as I could find bad ones. With that comes the opportunity to be the one driving the change. It isn’t easy, and it does involve investment from both a time and money perspective, but ultimately it will be more profitable for your bottom line.

Hold yourself accountable, put your money where your mouth is: invest in publications that have journalistic integrity and stop funding those that spread disinformation. Invest in publications that are diverse, purpose-led and challenge those who aren’t.