So: Brands Must Get Social & Political

by Alan So, ECD at Sköna and Founder and Visionary for San Francisco arts organization, Soundwave, dedicated to producing and presenting innovative art and music experiences. Sköna is a creative agency specializing in marketing, branding, and design for innovative tech companies. Sköna is 73% women and the majority of its clients are female lead companies.  Sköna clients include: Snowflake, Coinme, Alteryx, LiveRamp, Druva, Rollworks, Centrify-Thycotic, Unsupervised, Salesloft and Bugcrowd.

The Culture Tip: Be Affluent In Cultural/Societal Ideologies

In my 25 years in the design industry, I’ve noticed a marked shift in how companies activate their brands. In the early dot com years, there was almost a blissful ignorance to brand building with social, cultural, and political issues. Bringing awareness and excitement to a company, product, program, or service was the primary goal. Our clients, especially in the B2B tech space, were only interested in selling product. Makes logical sense, right? Sure, there were art and design activists promoting social or political issues, but to have leading agencies and large corporations focus on it? Definitely not. Whatever people’s ideologies were, brands needed to stay neutral and not offend anyone.

Over the last decade, an increasingly fractured political and ideological system has brought societal consciousness to the forefront and we are now seeing the winds of change. If the last two years have taught us anything, it’s that we live in a fast-changing, polarized and hyper-connected world. And brands need to take action because consumers are more focused than ever on choosing products and services that align with their values and beliefs.

Major global events have reverberated and affected our perception of our culture and society. The pandemic, the war in Ukraine, climate change, and social justice movements like MeToo, Black Lives Matter, and LGBTQ rights have become part of a larger conversation that brands can no longer ignore. Actions speak louder than words when it comes to expressing values and beliefs consumers respect. Doing nothing is the equivalent of complicity. It’s not just consumers who feel this way. All stakeholders, including funders, shareholders, employees, suppliers and partners, as well as local communities are connecting to companies that do more than give lip service to the issues they care about.

Companies can start with developing corporate values and brand strategies that reflect a mission and vision of how their brand intends to impact the world. It is why many have built Diversity, Equity, Inclusivity, and Belonging (DEI&B) departments, C-level/director roles focused on diversity and sustainability, net-zero goals, and the ability to respond quickly to a crisis. Studios like The Office of Ordinary Things and corporations like Patagonia specifically focus on sustainability. So much so, in fact, that Patagonia is renowned for inspiring customers to buy less of their products while building brand loyalty. And their Patagonia Provisions line enlists the support of more than 800 regenerative organic farmers.

Brands with purpose initiatives are nothing new. What’s different now is that people want to see real change. Since a fractured government isn’t able to create substantial progress, people are looking to make an impact elsewhere by voting with their dollars and holding brands accountable.

Here are some examples of companies taking the initiative to affect change and respond to current cultural and societal ideologies.

Airbnb’s disaster response tool is helping Ukraine

When crises arise, brands need to be able to respond quickly. Airbnb’s disaster response to the war in Ukraine includes offering free short-term housing, restricting users in Belarus and Russia from making new reservations, and a donations page., a global disaster response tool, was inspired by an Airbnb host in Brooklyn, New York who was looking to offer short-term housing to victims of Hurricane Sandy in 2012. One person really can make a difference. To date, has helped people in over 100 countries and throughout the USA.

Target is delivering on net-zero greenhouse emissions

The big box retailer Target retrofitted its California Vista location with 3,420 solar panels as part of its Target Forward commitment to reach net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2040. It is the first net-zero store and will transmit a 10% yearly energy surplus back into the local power grid.

Target Forward’s REACH (Racial Equity Action and Change) Network is also part of its sustainability journey to create a more diverse and equitable workforce.

Helping heal a fractured society

A black square on a social media page is not a diversity plan. Consumers see through that and expect brands and retailers to hold themselves accountable for diversity at every level of business. The Fifteen Percent Pledge is doing just that. In response to the Black Lives Matter movement, the organization mirrors the fact that Black people make up 15% of the population. It petitions retailers to commit to a minimum of 15% of shelf real estate for Black-owned businesses.

Here at Sköna we have an initiative called Sköna Forward where we dedicate 10% of our time to causes we care about. As creatives, we are in a unique position to help our clients respond with compelling solutions that articulate a sense of trust and align with consumer beliefs and values, however fractured they might be. We can do more by staying informed and aware of what’s going on in the world as well as in our industry. This moment in time is also an opportunity to be true to ourselves and use our skillset to make a difference.