Brands are getting political again.

This is nothing new. Brands themselves welcomed and led the move towards ‘meaning’ over the past few decades, and for some consumers it is important to see their values reflected by the brands they buy. Politics is part of what ‘meaning’ means now – and in our complicated modern world there are no shortage of issues to lead the conversation on.

Some brands do this well: think Nike running headfirst into the bullets of the anthem-kneeling debate in the US with their Colin Kaepernick-fronted campaign. Or HSBC wading into the bitter Brexit divides in the UK with We Are Not An Island. During the pandemic, brands adapted to a less divisive time by offering a more collectivist slice of politically-minded communications: think Tesco imploring their customers to go down the local and Burger King donating its social space to independents.

Other brands do this less well.

Pepsi didn’t quite solve centuries of racial injustice when Kendall Jenner gave a cop a can of Pepsi. And it’s getting harder to meet everyone’s criteria as a global brand when the values you express in one part of the world are uncomfortably juxtaposed with the values you express in another. Hello BMW, hello Jo Malone. Welcome to the article.

That the FIFA Men’s Football World Cup is being held in Qatar presents a problem for brands. It will dominate the news while it is on. For millions of fans, including those people who are only really fans when there’s a big tournament on, it will be a big part of casual conversations, social occasions and cultural discussions. But it’s being held – for terrible reasons – in a country with an appalling human rights record, where thousands of migrant workers have died since the tournament was awarded, and where homosexuality is illegal.

Brands that usually wouldn’t think twice about cashing in on the tournament are having to second guess their activity. Some sponsors – like Adidas, AB InBev, Coca-Cola and McDonald’s supported #PayUpFIFA, a campaign by Human Rights Watch to pay compensation to the migrant workers who suffered death or injury while literally building the tournament. Those brands will still be plastered all over the tournament. Other Sponsors – like Visa, Hyundai-Kia and Vivo – will have their names plastered all over the stadium without having to do anything as difficult as sign an open letter.

Which brings us to BrewDog, who have taken the can from Kendall Jenner and Pepsi and kicked it further down the road.

In recent years BrewDog have become adept at placing themselves in the middle of political conversations – for example, launching a special edition beer, Barnard Castle Eye Test in the weeks after Dominic Cummings’ infamous road trip. After that, a little of the punk sheen fell from BrewDog after former staff published an open letter accusing the brewer of presiding over a toxic workplace and a culture of fear.

Most recently, BrewDog’s latest campaign tried to exploit the unease many fans feel about the World Cup being hosted in Qatar, branding themselves a ‘proud anti-sponsor’  of the tournament, and that all profits from their Lost Lager sold during the World Cup would be donated to charity. Others called out the campaign, highlighting that the firm had signed a beer distribution deal in Qatar and that their pubs would still be showing the tournament.

BrewDog have done what most football fans will do – tried to have their cake and eat it. Few fans will follow Arsenal and England defender, Lotte Wubben-Moy, in her decision to not watch the World Cup. Most will watch it, and try to compartmentalise the sport they love as separate from a regime they don’t. We forgive these double standards in ourselves, but we do not forgive them in brands.

Especially not brands that we suspect – perhaps correctly – are trying to have the best of both worlds.

What does this mean?

Political appetites: Consumers do want brands to take a stand on issues. They feel particularly positive about brands talking about human rights – and this has increased over the past few years. But they won’t forgive hypocrisy.

Them and Us: Consumers expect integrity from brands, even when they are more forgiving of inconsistencies in themselves. Individuals will allow themselves to both complain about and watch the World Cup; brands won’t be allowed to both criticise and profit from it

Be Authentic: Leading the political conversation can be an opportunity. Sometimes it can be the best card to play. But any move has to be authentic, and talk backed up by action.

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