Are Brands Ready For “Uncivil Discourse”?

Coming to a brand near you—conflict.

It’s coming if it’s not already here. And it’s not just limited to small business or public spaces (or even the U.S.). People are polarized and pissed, and they are ready to take it out on each other. Or they’re prepared to make sure the “other side” takes it out on them. Mobile phones in the hands of millions of civilians have changed the way the public looks at law enforcement, and similar dynamics are being put in play with “acts of incivility” already playing out in public.

Brands In An Era of Uncivil Discourse
A recent example went down in a San Antonio Whataburger where teens wearing the signature red “Make America Great Again” hat were confronted by a man who ripped the hat off and threw a drink in the face of one of the teenagers:

The mobile video posted has of course, been viewed nearly four million times as I write this—with likely more to come and more media coverage to follow. In response, Whataburger stated:

“We were shocked to see this video and certainly don’t condone this type of customer behavior in our restaurants,” Whataburger said in a statement to Business Insider.

The statement continued: “To be clear, no Whataburger employees were involved or witnessed the incident, and we ask that questions be directed to San Antonio PD as we continue supporting their efforts.”
Source: Business Insider

To Whataburger’s credit—they responded in a relatively rapid fashion given that the incident took place on a national holiday (July 4th). But for many brands who have physical spaces with their names on it, the bar for handling uncivil discourse on their properties is only going to be raised as backlash becomes a part of doing business. And by my estimation—a lot of brands aren’t ready.

The natural instinct of any large organization is to stay away from politics, from taking a side or a position on an issue—even though there are a few outliers like a Ben & Jerry’s, (an activist brand from the start). But what’s different about this is that it’s not about taking a side as much as it is about doing the right thing. While brands can’t and don’t control the behavior of the people who frequent their retail locations, stores, restaurants, theme parks etc. they do have a responsibility to deal with the kinds of things that happen on their properties, even if they are in the clear legally.

When Values Must Become More Than Words
As tensions continue to rise and incidents of “incivility” become a more common occurrence, brands are going to have to shift their priorities from not only protecting themselves from legal liability, but also protecting the values they have articulated somewhere when people challenge those values in their places of business and act in ways that the brands don’t condone, support or embody. We’re fast moving past a time where brands understood they had to take action when an employee acted in a way that wasn’t consistent with the brand’s values but now we’re being confronted with paying customers and consumers who may display such behavior.

So, brands and business have to be ready for another emerging complexity—they are going to have to stewards of the values they espouse not only in how THEY act but how their consumers BEHAVE. Being silent is likely not going to be an option as each mobile video brings with it an amplification network that can move at the speed of real time.

So brands, be ready to defend your values. When it comes to conflict on your turf—the customer may not always be right.

CMO, strategist, thinker and doer. I write about human behaviors and the relationship we have with technology and brands

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