Panelists along the Advertising and Brand experience track were absorbed with the lingering pitfalls of how and when your brand should show up for sensitive cultural issues—and how to do so authentically. For brands to stay relevant, SXSW panelists suggested that marketers see brand-building more like the construction of social movements, take practical steps to achieve accountability and attract the right people and partners while being open to mistakes.

The Traditional Methods Of Marketing Lack Cultural Currency

At the panel Post-Brands Era: How Brands Spark Social Movements, Natalia Suniga, TikTok regional creative strategist for Social Snack outlined the next cycle of CSR beyond traditional brands, brands with purpose, and into the post-brand era. Suniga contends that for brands to truly mobilize communities toward action, marketers need to start seeing them more like social movements.

Suniga outlined a path for brands that hope to create values-based connections with their audiences. She noted that it’s no longer sufficient for brands to just have purpose-driven initiatives. This is because a combination of rapid technological advances together with shifting behaviors are causing “significant change that restructures social norms, individual beliefs and realities.”

“Gen Z and Alphas are choosing the information they want to consume. They are well-informed,” (sometimes by memes) and they “choose authentic brands that embrace diversity, embrace the environment, and those that also have a positive impact on the world,” noting that 73 percent of Gen Z want brands to take a more significant role in society, while 67 percent of consumers are belief-driven buyers, which means they made purchasing decisions based on their values.

“Traditional brands are no longer relevant nor effective as conscious [social] consumerism grows and people are ready to take action. That is why, when we think of the future of brands, we must think of the role and responsibility they have in social transformation and their connection with new consumers.”

“In a cluttered, fragmented marketplace, “post-brands” can social movements and build communities and mobilize people,” she said.

Citing the Argentinean social theorist Ernesto Laclau as an inspiration, Suniga said “I’ve come to understand brands as social discourses that produce, reproduce and transform social reality. We all know Coca-Cola as an excellent example, of a brand that created culture, created Christmas now as we know it.”

And it’s true that brands have had considerable power, even shaping the modern depiction of Santa Claus. But the transformative power of brands, she suggests, has been diluted within our hyper-active attention economy.

“It’s difficult for each particular information source to truly captivate our attention and influence,” Suniga says.

Such a change can reflect poorly on traditional brands, which can appear out-of-step and woke-washed when adopting cause marketing that lacks dimension. As Suniga puts it, brands become “pink, rainbow or black-washing movements” that use “superficial and sympathetic messages without helping the community or furthering the cause in any way.” The only way out, then, is to go beyond the brand.

Admittedly a “future foresight,” Suniga suggests that post-branding begins with adopting a new perspective on the idea of the brand and its role in society, one that asks marketers to begin to see brands like social movements to capitalize on a new unsatisfied social demand from people: that a product or service they’re buying is actually aligned with their core values.

Want an alternative post-brand future? Listen to Scott Galloway’s promulgations on the post-brand era (or hear some meditative SXSW-themed Galloway wisdom here).

Don’t Be Afraid Of Cancel Culture (Or Get To The Place Where You Won’t Be)

The evolution toward a post-brand era is theoretical and beyond the realm of what’s possible for most brands, but at Avoiding The Pitfalls of Brand Wokeness, Microsoft principal content strategist Sydney Carlton spoke about the urgency to meet and exceed your audience’s expectations for a wider representation of identities right now in concrete, practical steps.

“Your audiences and customers are demanding representation,” says Carlton. “If you’re reducing your representation to stereotypes your efforts will be perceived—at best—as lazy, and at worst, as harmful.”

Her one goal for attendees, she said, was to have them “walk away feeling empowered to advocate for more representative marketing efforts.”

Carlton’s not calling for a collective reimagining of brands as social movements, but a renewed effort to “see beyond the superficialities of ‘wokeness’ and to not fear cancel culture,” and a renewed focus on self-accountability by looking inward at your organization.

In referencing an ill-conceived cascade of decisions from H&M, Carlton pauses and examines the dysfunction.

“We can’t help but wonder. Who ordered that hoodie? Who then placed it on the black boy? Who then took the picture? Who edited the picture? Who posted it on the website? Who did [the] final review? How many hands did this decision go through before it was released to the public? And why wasn’t anyone culturally-aware enough, or empowered enough to call out this mistake?”

“Either there was a lack of diversity involved in this decision-making, or they didn’t feel empowered enough to say what was wrong,” says Carlton. Her suggestion is to “hire qualified and diverse consultants,” she continued. “I know that a diverse and inclusive work environment takes time. Certain verticals are harder than others. So, to fill the gaps in the meantime, hire consultants.”

“If you have self-accountability,” says Carlton, “it’s really hard for cancel culture to come get you.”

To convince the leadership at your organization of the importance of representation, bring data, research, and feedback says, Carlton. Encourage leadership to make a monetary investment toward DEI if it’s truly important to your organization.

Aligning Your Purpose With Core Values And Partners

From the theoretical to the practical and finally, to the actual, the examination of brand values at “The Anatomy of an Authentic Brand” opened with the statistic that 72 percent of U.S. consumers want to buy from companies that reflect their values. Featuring NASCAR driver Bubba Wallace, DoorDash CMO Kofi Amoo-Gottfried and NBA chief marketing officer Kate Jhaveri, the panelists discussed authentic partnerships and being open to missteps and criticism.

Bubba Wallace, a brand in his own right, the only black driver in NASCAR’s Cup Series and subject of the new Netflix docuseries ‘Race,’ spoke about how a meaningful partnership was formed with DoorDash and what underpinned his decision to support BLM at the potential cost of fans of the NASCAR brand. “I took a big risk. Our sport is funded by our partners. And without partners then you don’t really last long,” he said, “With everything that was going on, when the pandemic hit, I felt the time was right for me to say something that I believe in, and that’s equality for all of us in this room. Companies want to stay away from that,” he said. But not all companies, after all.

“I think we all needed a reality check and a culture shift to say ‘hey, to talk about these things is a good thing. We need to bring awareness to it.” Wallace continued, “The companies that aligned with that mattered the most to me.”

“I said… you know what? I don’t care the sponsors think, I’m doing this; I’m standing up for the human race, I’m doing what’s right. And actually had DoorDash pick up the phone…” which was the origin of the partnership, he said.

DoorDash CMO Kofi Amoo-Gottfied confirms they did just that, despite uncertainty about how the move would impact the company’s bottom line.

You should be prepared to take risks and adopt a long-view that “doing the right thing is the right thing to do,” says Amoo-Gottfried. There may not be an immediate financial reward to taking a stand. In fact, there may be consequences like a backlash or boycott.

“It’s easy to worry about what you’re going to lose. But when you take a stand there is a lot to gain,” he noted.

“You have to convince the business that this is in their interest. Treating this like it’s a social cause is useful but only to a point. The reality is if you think about black and brown businesses, if you think about demographics, if you think about spending power, if you think about what they drive from a trend perspective, these are the communities that are driving culture around this country, so to ignore them is crazy. Getting businesses to understand that leaning in here is the right thing to do, and it’s also the right thing to do from a business perspective.”

And what to do if your brand takes a stand but makes a misstep? Be authentic.

“Own up to it. Get out in front of it. This is a huge part of being authentic. When you make a mistake, you say you made a mistake. And you are public about that, and let people know how you are going to fix it.”

Ultimately though, the bottom line is still the bottom line; and it goes both ways. NBA CMO Kate Jhaveri notes, “Where your dollars go really tells the story.” Whether that’s hiring the right people or choosing wisely how and where to spend media dollars, it matters.

Amoo-Gottfried put it like this: “It turns out it’s quite hard to speak to the black community or the Hispanic community if you’re not from that community.”

And how to ensure you are speaking authentically and inclusively to your brand’s community? Microsoft’s Sydney Carlton provided some important steps:

  • Be aware of the impact your industry may have on marginalized communities
    • Do your research and understand the issues concerning diversity and representation facing your industry today—make a plan to address them.
    • Determine what role your company should have in moving your industry towards progress

  • Look inward before looking outward
    • Does your company have a DEI strategy?
    • Does your company leadership have a way to formally interact with historically excluded groups?
    • Are there equitable pay practices for employees and partners?
    • Your partners, vendors, and distribution channels will be on this journey with you and may need to be reexamined.

  • Ensure there is diverse representation in every stage of your workflow
    • Hire qualified and diverse consultants on key projects when that representation doesn’t already exist within.
    • Don’t assume that the “diverse” employee’s job is to be the educator on their own identity
    • Bring everyone on the journey of educating themselves to establish a common baseline of education to these projects

  • Realize that diversity has layers, consider intersectionality
    • Don’t think of representation in binary, one-dimensional ways
    • Represent the vastness in the actual lived experiences of marginalized people.

  • Be transparent & accountable
    • Be open about the areas where your organization could be doing better
    • Make plans and intentions for improvement
    • Create measurable goals
    • Leave room to adapt and grow