A couple of years ago, I wrote a book on crisis communication, and I interviewed the amazing business psychologist, Gill Green, about what an organisation might do to trigger (inadvertently) a backlash against them.
We talked about the relationship that people have with brands, and she talked about this as a sort of psychological contract. If you buy from a brand – particularly one that you associate with in a public way such as the label on your clothes, or your car, for example – you expect something back from it. You expect a certain standard of product, of course, but mostly you expect a set of behaviours that align with your own values.
If the brand does something that’s out of sync with the behaviour you expect from it, it could cause a backlash.
Broadly speaking, there are five things a brand or organisation does that triggers negative behaviour from people. (It’s useful for crisis communications teams to think about these behaviours in order to advise the business on how to avoid the crisis in the first place.)
- It hits at our core beliefs and values. If you were an environmental campaigner, and your favourite brand was found to be polluting the planet, you would stop using it. You might even feel betrayed by it. Our core beliefs and values are the things that we hold really close – things like equality, climate change, animal rights. The things we won’t compromise on.
- It attacks our social norms, what our networks and friends say is ok. We tend to form tribes round ideas, so if our friends say a brand is involved with doing something bad, we’re likely to follow their lead and turn on the brand as well.
- It takes away our control. We see this with data breaches. If we trust a company to protect our data, and then they break that trust, we feel that we’ve lost control of our information. Cambridge Analytica / Facebook scandal was a good example of that. We knew we were giving Facebook our data to tailor advertising, but when we discovered that data could be used to manipulate us politically, that took away our sense of control.
- It hurts something or someone we relate to, or can identify with. An example is when train companies or airlines are in chaos, when there are cancellations or delays. Even people who aren’t affected can relate to people being stuck on a crowded train, or having a holiday cancelled. It’s relatable.
- We turn on a brand that goes against its own ethics or stated values. For example, if an organisation states it is inclusive or values diversity, but its actions don’t reflect this, we turn against it.
We saw this after the murder of George Floyd in 2020, during the Black Lives Matter protests. All over the world, brands were publicly communicating their support for the Black Lives Matter movement, but it’s action rather than words that counts here. There was a real backlash against brands that spoke out against racial injustice but whose action on equality didn’t stack up. A good example was the beauty brands that communicated their support for the movement, but at the same time were selling skin-lightening creams to women in the Middle East, Africa and Asia.
We see it every year during Pride, too. There are brands – like Walmart and many others – who donate impressive sums of money to LGBTQ+ charities for Pride month, but who also donate similar sums to politicians who oppose LGBTQ+ rights. Their actions don’t always stack up to their stated values on equality.
(These are just some of the types of important social issues Gemma Storey talked about in her blog post last week on how good intentions can cause a backlash.)
So, a good starting point for any brand wanting to avoid a crisis is to examine its own values carefully, and whether there is a gap between what they say, and the behaviour of the business. Identifying these gaps early on might just save the brand from facing a backlash in the future.