We’ve all seen the videos of angry men and women cursing, threatening, assaulting fellow shoppers, and decrying requirements to wear masks in public spaces across the United States. They’re up in arms! Their constitutional rights have been infringed! Mask-wearing has become a political issue during a health crisis – which, for many like myself, is mystifying. The science behind masks’ efficacy is clear. But the visceral reaction that masks engender continues unabated.
While the voices of politicians in many places have swung in the pro-mask direction, the real force changing the behavior comes from the big brands. This week, Wal-Mart, CVS, Target and other retailers announced they would require masks in their stores across the US. It will no longer be up to the individual location, or down to its local or state laws. All stores will require masks. As of a few years ago, 95% of Americans purchased something from Wal-Mart. Add in Target, CVS, Kohl’s, Kroger and a few others, and suddenly we are talking about retailers that reach nearly every consumer in the United States. Masks are now the norm. If you want to make a purchase at retail, you will wear a mask.
Even with the power of government behind it, the mask requirement was going to be hard to enact through law enforcement. Retail is another story. Many retailers have security guards and greeters who are helping make the requirement stick. And slowly, but surely, brands will succeed where government has failed.
It’s no surprise: US citizens have lost trust in government. A recent Pew Research poll found, “Many people no longer think the federal government can actually be a force for good or change in their lives.” A separate Pew study shows fewer people regularly attending religious services – the share of people who never attend services is up 54% in the last decade – so religions’ ability to shape norms has declined as well.
With these influences in decline, brands have stepped in. That’s clear from another massive change announced recently. The NFL franchise from Washington DC announced it was dropping the name Redskins. This, despite the team’s owner Daniel Snyder’s insistence that he would never change the name. But when advertisers and sponsors like Fedex, PepsiCo, Bank of America and Nike formally asked the team and/or the NFL to change the name, the team announced a name review, with the statement, “As part of this process, we want to keep our sponsors, fans and community apprised of our thinking as we go forward.” Notice who came first in that list. Not fans or community. It was sponsors, AKA Brands.
In a country so highly polarized, we don’t trust our elected leaders. Traditional religions have lost influence. And Lo and Behold, Brands have become the de facto conscience of the country. They are no longer just a reflection of public opinion. They are driving it. People are looking to brands for direction in how to respond to the ethical, social and moral dilemmas of the day. Perhaps it’s because brands are not viewed as partisan. They cannot be categorized as Democrat or Republican. Or, in most cases, as having a religious affiliation. But just as importantly, legacy brands have spent millions of dollars over decades to inspire trust, which can now be used to motivate behavior change.
With this in mind, marketers and CEOs need to take a hard look at how they are using this power. Not every company is Fedex or Walmart. But companies are no longer best served by staying neutral on issues of the day. Companies and individuals are scrutinizing what businesses stand for when deciding to purchase from or partner with them. Without a clear purpose and well-articulated values, brands are now failing to fulfill the role that is increasingly expected of them. It won’t be long before a majority of businesses establish a list of requirements about social issues that are prerequisites for transactions with other entities. The reality is if you’re sitting on the fence about what your brand stands for, you are now taking a business risk. For today’s brands, standing for nothing can be more problematic than taking a stand.