At times of extreme crisis, when people’s livelihoods and lives are in constant danger and the world sits on the precipice of escalating conflict, what we do seems ephemeral and inconsequential.
And of course, it is. We create difference and build meaning for businesses and causes with the economic and political freedom to operate, for people with the economic and political freedom to choose.
And yet in our desire as marketers to act with humility at times such as these, let us not underestimate the power of the brands in our charge to effect change.
Because, as the businesses of the world’s liberal democracies have withdrawn from Russia, with them have gone their brands. And while those businesses are in a sense merely commodities, replaceable by others that are less antagonistic to the regime, their brands – the brands that we nurture and build – are not.
As businesses withdraw, they don’t prevent the people of Russia having access to smartphones, that’s not in their gift. But they do ensure, for the foreseeable future, those people cannot buy new iPhones or any other part of the Apple ecosystem. And no one is attempting to deny the very same people burgers, but Burger King is insistent that they should no longer be able to enjoy their brand. The commodity remains – served by others – but the brand does not.
Like it or not, brands are now participants in this war, perhaps the first in which they have held such power.
Of course, the first instinct behind business withdrawal may have been a desire not to derive revenue from a market whose government is pursuing a murderous war. And to ensure that their organisations are in no way unwittingly complicit in breaking sanctions imposed by their own governments.
But the power of those actions isn’t purely economic. It also lies in the exclusion of people from participating and enjoying the fruits of societies and cultures whose values built the brands they love.
Those that create and nurture the world’s most desirable brands are actively saying that consumers may only have access to those brands that liberal democracies have built if they accept the values that have built them. Or at the very least do not directly offend and traduce those values.
And perhaps it’s time that we faced the fact that the greatest brands on earth are forged in very special circumstances. They are the children and agents of free market capitalism and the liberal democracies that keep those markets free. And they are born and grow to help people make choices in highly competitive markets where such choices can really be made. That is what makes the global brands that the world loves from Apple to BMW and Burberry to Zara so potent, the ferocity of the economies in which they were forged and have had to compete.
Free market capitalism mind, not state controlled capitalism, crony capitalism, kleptocracy, corporate welfare or any of the other perversions of a truely free market that is protected and regulated by liberal democracy. Globally irresistible brands do not develop when capitalism is hamstrung by party, state or oligarch.
Denying the businesses and people of Russia access to the greatest brands in the world is more than an attempt to undermine their war economy. It speaks directly to the society they want to be and the values they would like to embody. More than that it communicates that something is deeply wrong with the world view they are being presented by their own government.
Absent brands and cancelled sponsorships also telegraph the seriousness of the situation to the Russian people over the heads of state-controlled media. After all, Ikea furniture and Zara clothes would still be available if this was merely a “special operation”. They are now denied to Russians because what is being done in their name is abhorrent to those that create and support the world’s greatest brands.
Brands are not weapons in this war but they are now a full part of the armoury of sanctions being used against its instigator. Sanctions that don’t simply prevent access to the fundamentals of life but also the markers of liberal values and culture.
For the first time we are saying to the world that access to our brands can no longer be independent from an acceptance of the values that forge them. Something that, if true, will have huge ramifications beyond the timeline of this conflict and the borders of Russia.