News & Views
Cook stands up to stand out

Recently, Tim Cook, the openly gay CEO of Apple, made a bold move by stating that Apple, as a company, was deeply disappointed that the state of Indiana was signing a “Religious Freedom” bill. The law grants business owners the right to refuse service to customers whose values conflict with theirs – notably, same-sex individuals.


“Apple is open for everyone. We are deeply disappointed in Indiana’s new law,” Cook said on Friday on his Twitter account.

Cook’s public concern over the new law has since been followed by a swath of support from other executives and brands standing “out” against discrimination, including NASCAR, an institution that is often perceived as conservative.

U.S. brands and businesses have long recognized that discrimination, in all its forms, is bad for business and community. For many brands, a central mission is to empower and enrich customers’ lives. But not every CEO would articulate such a definitive position on a political issue such as this one.

The reason that CEOs such as Tim Cook, along with brands, are publicly voicing opinions on political issues is that there has been a fundamental shift in marketing in the past 10 years. Advertising and marketing campaigns are increasingly engaging consumers by communicating a wider message, in many instances unrelated to the brand, that effects and champions social change.

Traditionally, in marketing campaigns, the brand message and product always take center stage. Now, these are often secondary. Instead, brands are harnessing wider social issues and human-centric stories to connect with consumers emotionally. They’re using societal issues as conduits through which to generate brand awareness and consumer preference.

For example, a 2013 Google Plus campaign showed how a brand – in this instance, Google – can change people’s lives and encourage social progress. In promoting Google Plus’s feature Google Hangouts, the brand entered itself and its product into a conversation around the most debated issue in France at the time: same-sex marriage. Google partnered with the association Tous Unis Pour l’Egalité and created the first social same-sex marriage. The teams made it possible for French gay couples to get married in France via Hangout, with a mayor from Belgium, where same-sex marriage is legal, officiating. The ceremony was witnessed online by family and friends and broadcasted live on YouTube for the whole world to see. These first social same-sex weddings provided a platform from French gay couples could be heard and speak out about their rights. Google helped the debate progress in France by giving a voice to the many supporters of marriage equality.

Using political, environmental, and social issues is an effective way to make your brand stand out and get people taking. By having an opinion and voicing a concern about an issue, such as the new law in Indiana, Apple has situated itself within a major news story and managed to stand out from its competitors as being progressive and socially responsible.

Still, the wider issue surrounding same-sex rights – such as those in countries outside of the US, where basic human rights for LGBT people don’t even exist, and LGBT people are at risk of imprisonment and death – are much more serious. While brands are making statements about social change, they are, importantly, not delving more deeply into some of the more shocking and outrageous human rights issues at play. Indeed, Cook was called a hypocrite by Carly Fiorina, the former CEO Hewlett Packard, because Apple does business in markets where homophobia (along with sexism) is more severe than in the US, including Indiana.

Cook’s effort to stand “out” could mark the beginning of the opportunities and challenges facing brands now and in the future. Marketing campaigns that communicates important political issues to engage people help their brands to stand out, while also helping to bring about social justice.

First appeared on CLIO Awards

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