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2024: Navigating Marketing’s Polarized Pathways

The Gist

  • Complex challenges. Brands face unprecedented challenges including global conflicts, societal divides, and a volatile US election.
  • Consumer expectations. Customers demand transparency and authenticity, expecting brands to align with their values and take stands on social issues.
  • Evolving marketing landscape. AI’s rise, data privacy concerns, and sustainability issues reshape marketing strategies and consumer engagement.

In 2024, marketers are likely to find themselves navigating a world brimming with unprecedented challenges and polarizations. From the unrelenting conflicts in Ukraine/Russia and Israel/Palestine to the turmoil of a US presidential election overshadowed by a controversial candidate who is facing numerous legal battles, the societal landscape has never been more complex. This backdrop is further complicated by deep-seated divisions — political, racial, and generational — that have fragmented the nation, creating a marketing minefield where every message risks alienating one group or another. Amidst this chaos, the rise of artificial intelligence (AI) threatens to reshape the job market, adding another layer of uncertainty to the already volatile environment. 

A map of the United States made up of broken up rocks that are splintering apart in piece about marketing in a polarized world.In 2024, marketers are likely to find themselves navigating a world brimming with unprecedented challenges and polarizations.Kevin Carden on Adobe Stock Photos

This article delves into the complex realm of marketing amidst global unrest and societal divides, exploring how brands can navigate these choppy waters by genuinely living up to their stated values, thereby appealing to customers who are increasingly demanding transparency, authenticity, and alignment in both word and deed.

In 2024, the Potential for Chaos Abounds

Brands today should be acutely aware of several pressing issues that may significantly impact their business operations and customer relations. First, data privacy and security are falling increasingly under the microscope, with more stringent regulations such as the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) reflecting growing consumer demand for data protection. This means businesses must ensure their data handling is transparent and secure to maintain trust and compliance.

Sustainability is another critical area of concern. With climate change and sustainability practices becoming more prominent, consumers are looking favorably on brands that demonstrate environmental responsibility. This trend is pushing companies to reconsider their supply chains, product life cycles, and overall environmental footprint.

The evolution of AI and technology is a double-edged sword, offering innovative ways to enhance customer experience but also raising ethical and employment concerns. Brands are expected to use technology responsibly, ensuring that AI and automation improve services without infringing on privacy or unduly displacing jobs.

Social and political issues are also influencing consumer behavior. Brands are often expected to take stands on social justice, diversity, and political matters, reflecting their customers’ values. However, this can be a complex landscape to navigate without alienating different segments of a brand’s core audience. Additionally, economic fluctuations, such as inflation, recession fears, or supply chain disruptions, remain a perennial concern. These factors can affect consumer spending patterns and force brands to adapt their strategies accordingly.

In addressing these challenges, brands should aim for proactive engagement, transparent communication, and adaptive strategies to effectively navigate the complex and ever-changing business environment. They need to be particularly sensitive to how these broader issues resonate with their customer base and reflect in their corporate actions and messaging.

Shahar Silbershatz, CEO of Caliber, a stakeholder intelligence company, told CMSWire that every time his company conducts a driver analysis, which is a statistical examination determining the significance of each of these attributes in shaping an overall reputation, they consistently find that “authenticity” is at the top of the list. “This suggests that authenticity, the perception that a company does what it says, is a key factor for many people when it comes to trusting and liking a company. This holds true even more so than perceptions of a company’s innovation or its products.”

The significance of authenticity in marketing and advertising came center stage in 2023 with the Anheuser-Busch debacle. “For instance, consider the recent reputational crisis that Anheuser-Busch InBev experienced following the notorious Bud Light backlash,” suggested Silbershatz. “This crisis can be attributed not only to the campaign itself but also to the perception that the company failed to remain true to its own character and image, exacerbated by its subsequent retreat. In other words, a lack of authenticity played a significant role.”

Related Article: What Anheuser-Busch Got Wrong in Its Online Crisis

Customers Demand That Brands Take a Stand

Benjamin Arnold, president of North America at Adludio, an AI-powered interactive mobile advertising platform provider, told CMSWire that generally speaking, it is a fine line as to whether brands should or should not speak out on social and political issues during unstable times. “The decision-making trend also seems cyclical in terms of consumer receptivity. If you think back to COVID times, to the BLM and equality movement, and to the national discourses and protests that took place around women’s rights last year, many brands felt encouraged to speak out and express their corporate positionings,” said Arnold. 

These pivotal events exacerbated the need for businesses to stand behind their values. Consumers today largely expect the brands they do business with to publicly take a stand on political and social events. In the past few years, numerous studies and reports have highlighted the growing trend of consumers expecting businesses to take a stand on social issues. Notable examples of such studies and research include:

View all

  • Edelman Trust Barometer: The Edelman Trust Barometer consistently reiterates the fact that consumers expect brands to be a force for social change. The reports indicate a significant portion of consumers believe brands should speak up and take action on issues ranging from sustainability to social justice.
  • Nielsen Global Corporate Sustainability Report: Nielsen’s research found that a substantial percentage of consumers are willing to pay more for products and services from companies that are committed to positive social and environmental impact. This indicates that CSR can drive purchasing decisions.
  • Cone Communications CSR Study: Cone Communications has conducted various studies showing that consumers expect businesses to operate responsibly and address social and environmental issues. Their research typically finds that a majority of consumers say they are more likely to trust and be loyal to companies that support social and environmental issues.
  • Accenture Strategy Global Consumer Pulse Research: This research found that consumers are looking beyond the traditional role of businesses; they are shopping with their values and are more likely to choose brands that have a purpose that reflects their own beliefs and values.

These studies suggest that customers are increasingly looking at the ethical, social and environmental footprints of companies. They’re using their purchasing power to support businesses that not only offer quality products and services but also contribute positively to society and align with their personal values. As a result, brands are finding that addressing social issues can be an integral part of building brand loyalty, reputation, and competitive advantage.

That doesn’t mean that consumers are always interested in hearing from brands on current social and political events. “We’ve seen this with the growing backlash against brands like the once-popular Ben & Jerry’s; one of the most outspoken brands on civil and political topics, with people increasingly and not-so-politely asking them and other brands to stick to providing products,” said Arnold. “Like him or loathe him, comedian Chris Rock articulated the public sentiment shift, calling out Lululemon, Subaru and Tesla as companies that ‘don’t even tell you about the product’ anymore, but rather ‘how much charity they do.’”

Arnold believes that this isn’t indicative that brands should never appeal to consumer values or topical moments, but rather, it’s time they got smarter with understanding and deciding which discourses are truly relevant to them and their core customers and the degree to which they participate or advocate. 

“Brands need to be acutely aware of messaging and media placement to avoid showing up in the wrong context in the wrong way,” said Arnold. “It’s also about recognizing that now more than ever, it’s not about who can deliver the most impressions, or shout the loudest. Rather it’s about who can generate meaningful attention by treating their consumers with respect, and by delivering made-for-purpose and contextual, relevant ad units that are worthy of their engagement.”

Stephan Baldwin, serial entrepreneur, founder and HR manager at Assisted Living, a health marketing company, told CMSWire that effective marketing today questions a brand’s boldness to actually exhibit the values they claim to stand by. “There are two approaches on how business may react to the constant changes occurring around the world. The first is to remain silent on these matters. This might be the more popular approach for businesses who don’t have direct affiliations with particular social causes,” explained Baldwin. “The other is to take a public stance on certain matters. Of course, this avenue poses the risk of companies losing customers who disagree with their stance. This should be expected whenever brands choose to portray their authenticity,” said Baldwin. “Not everyone shares the same values, but those who do are more likely to become long-term customers. In that light, taking a public stance could be viewed as a strategy for filtering out your ideal audience from other onlookers. It could strengthen your marketing efforts.”

Related Article: The Customer Is Key: Top Customer Experience Mistakes of 2023

CSR, Corporate Ethics and Values Take the Stage

As a result of the continually-evolving global and societal challenges, corporations have significantly amplified the prominence and transparency of their Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) statements, values and ethics. This shift is evident in their enhanced communication and reporting strategies. Many businesses now dedicate portions of their websites and annual reports to detailing their CSR initiatives, progress and goals. These often align with international frameworks such as the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) or the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to ensure a standardized disclosure of their efforts.

In addition to self-reporting, businesses are increasingly leveraging third-party certifications and forming partnerships with reputable organizations to validate their commitments. This move toward external validation not only adds credibility to their claims but also helps consumers make informed decisions based on recognized standards.

Another significant change is the integration of CSR into core business strategies. Rather than treating CSR as a peripheral issue, many businesses are weaving social responsibility and ethical considerations into their business models, decision-making processes, and corporate culture. This integration ensures that CSR is not just a statement on paper but a practice embedded in every aspect of their operations.

Additionally, in response to consumer advocacy and the call for more substantial actions, brands are setting more ambitious targets, particularly in areas such as environmental sustainability, social equity and ethical supply chain management. They are also increasingly transparent about the challenges they face in implementing these initiatives, recognizing that honesty about the journey is as important as celebrating the milestones.

Rubab Rizvi, chief data scientist at Brainchild, a media agency affiliated with the Publicis Groupe, told CMSWire that political beliefs will be the hot topic in 2024, as consumers won’t hesitate to express their convictions. “Social responsibility, politics, and sustainability are the shopping motivators,” said Rizvi. “Advertisers, pick a side — it’s not just about products; it’s about principles. With stakeholders increasingly demanding authenticity and alignment in both word and deed, advertisers must ensure their policies and industry impact aren’t part of the problem.” Rizvi emphasized that laggards make excuses, leaders take accountability.

Related Article: How to Make Your Social Outreach More Genuine and Organic

Final Thoughts

As society struggles with deep divisions and global challenges, brands are forced by necessity to navigate these complexities by genuinely embodying their stated values and ethics. This is done with the understanding that every message they broadcast is scrutinized through a lens of societal and political implications. In 2024, marketing strategies must be adeptly aligned with consumers’ intensified demands for authenticity, transparency and ethical conduct.

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